15 Lessons Learned from the Webinar “Protecting Your City from Wildfire”
February 2-3, 2021
by: Sue Piper
Secretary, United Policyholders
Chair, Oakland Firesafe Council
The virtual conference “Protecting your City from Wildfire” offered two days of webinars and Q & A on a wide variety of topics that would interest planners, fire fighters and wildfire advocates about community wildfire prevention. My interest, as a 1991 Tunnel Fire survivor, a board member of United Policyholders and chair of the Oakland Firesafe Council, was very focused. I was looking for specifics that would address neighborhoods in Oakland and Alameda County located in the wildland/urban interface (WUI).
Oakland’s WUI neighborhoods are not situated in the high sierra forests of Northern California or the chapparal communities of Southern California, upon which most of the defensible space standards are based. We are densely populated urban neighborhoods situated on steep hillsides covered with Monterey Pines, Redwoods, Eucalyptus, Acacia and Oaks. Most houses are within 50 to 30 feet of their neighbors. Our fuel load is not just the trees, shrubs and ground fuels, it is the structures themselves. And I know from first-hand experience that my family and my home are only as strong as the weakest link in my neighborhood. Wildfire prevention and resiliency is definitely an “it takes a village” effort.
So, I was looking not only for the most up-to-date practical information as an individual homeowner, but also for guidance on what neighborhoods and cities can do to reduce the risk of the spread of wildfire given the latest in fire modeling and prevention standards.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Global warming has affected the frequency and persistence of heat waves that impact the occurrence of mega wildfires: 5 of the top 20 wildfires in California occurred in 2020 alone. Communities located in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) near foothills are at risk of very fast, destructive fires. (Leila Carvahlo, Professor, UC Santa Barbara)
2. As a result, there is a need for a regional focus to better forecast fire weather regimes and improve evacuation strategies to improve resilience capacity. (Leila Carvahlo, Professor, UC Santa Barbara)
3. Climate change has made our vulnerability worse: we need to increase restoration treatment of extreme-fire behavior in forests and to make human communities safe. It will take decisive action NOW. (Scott Stephens, Professor of Science, Department of Environmental Science, UC Berkeley)
4. Local entities need to take action; don’t wait for the state. (Scott Stephens, Professor of Science, Department of Environmental Science, UC Berkeley)
5. 0-5 feet “ember resistant” zone will be the new requirement for defensible space to protect structures, including decks, from ignition that can result from wind-blown embers that can accumulate at the base of the exterior wall and from exposure to radiant heat or direct flame contact that would occur due to the ignition of combustible materials located near the building or under an attached deck.
6. The 5-30 foot (or 100 feet on larger properties) requires vegetation management and properly maintained landscaping to prevent fire from climbing into the upper portions of trees or shrubs and to stop any fire from burning directly to the building. Wind-blown embers may still be able to ignite individual islands of plants in the 5-30 ft. zone, which is why the near-building noncombustible zone is critical (Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.https://ibhs.org/wildfire/near-building-noncombustible-zone/)
7. CalFire sets the standards and offers support to communities that abut State-Responsibility Areas. CalFire offers limited support to local responsibility areas not adjacent to state responsibility areas (such as Oakland and nearby communities). (Tom Porter, Director CALFIRE)
8. The state offers funds for homeowners in rural communities—especially low-income homeowners—to implement home hardening efforts to protect their homes against flying embers.
9. Community resilience is a bottom-up approach—it has to come from the neighborhoods and communities themselves because the ecology ad community needs are different in each community.
10. We need consistency across community levels to create community fire resilience—it requires long term social and political efforts to do this.
11. We also need to invest in data and analysis to make sure that planning models are based on the most current realities.
12. The insurance industry is not yet aligned with the latest data and fire modeling, with the result of an ongoing issue of companies cancelling policies for WUI residents, even those who are diligent about maintaining defensible space. Efforts are underway (at the state level and through United Policyholders’ WRAP program) to address this issue.
13. Tree mortality and the infestation of the Bark Beetle due to climate change has increased the scale of tree mortality to the point that it will increase wildfires. Reducing tree densities of fuel loads AND MAINTAINING THEM is very important. (Christopher F. Fettig, Research Entomologist at USDA)
14. The current Hazard Maps don’t provide updates on what has been mitigated or reduced through fire. We need to transition to RISK MAPS. (Scott Witt, Deputy Chief, Fire Plan Program, CALFIRE)
15. People have to get involved, don’t just leave it to the government. It takes a personal responsibility to make a difference (Bob Roper, California Fire Safe Council.)
The webinar didn’t exactly reveal anything new for me, but it reinforced my personal advocacy efforts to help form an East Bay Regional Wildfire Prevention Vegetation Management Joint Powers Authority for the 20 cities, 2 counties and four non-municipal public agencies in the Alameda/Contra Costa County WUI. ( https://oaklandfiresafecouncil.org/the-east-bay-needs-a-regional-approach-to-wildfire-prevention/)
And it also gave credence to the Oakland Firesafe Council’s Oakland Community Preparedness and Response Program (www.oaklandcpandr.org) that provides guides and tools for individuals and neighborhoods to organize to make their communities more wildfire resilient.
If you live or work in a WUI, or have friends and family who are at risk because they live or work in a WUI, I hope you will join me in making an effort to spread the word about how important it is for WUI residents to work together to make their homes and love ones more resilient to wildfires—for it is not a matter of if, but when the next wildfire will become the most devastating disaster in memory.