Incentivizing Wildfire Prevention in Marin County
Marin County consists of 828 square miles and approximately 260,000 residents . Of this region, approximately 60,000 acres—18% of the County’s land area—falls within the wildland urban interface (WUI) where residences (i.e., homes and structures) are adjacent to or intermixed with open space and wildland vegetation. Because of the mix of structures and natural fuels combined with limited ingress and egress routes, both fire response and evacuation management present a major challenge. In Marin County specifically, many roads within the WUI are narrow, winding, and often on hillsides with overgrown vegetation, making it even more difficult and costly to reduce fire hazards and prepare for evacuations in these areas. Similarly, homes are tucked into the dense hillsides along the narrow roads, and often consist of building materials such as cedar shingle siding and single-paned windows. In order to protect people, structures, and communities, the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority (MWPA) has made the improvement of evacuation routes and the creation of fire-resistant homes two of their top priorities.
As it becomes more critical than ever to adapt to our changing environment and prepare ourselves in the face of wildfire threat, the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority has been promoting a house-out approach. This strategy emphasizes the first 0-5’ (zone 1) and 5’-30’ (zone 2) around homes in order to incentivize residents to take the necessary steps to harden their homes and create defensible space. Wind-borne embers can blow more than a mile away from a wildfire and are a leading cause of home ignitions during these events. In fact, up to 90% of ignitions from wildfires are caused by embers (IBHS 2019).
Due to this, effective defensible space and home hardening can be the difference between saving your home and total loss.
In addition to public education, the MWPA also sends fire inspectors into Marin County communities to conduct evaluations and spread awareness about the importance of making these changes. This year a resident grant program was created to aid homeowners as they make the necessary changes. Specifically, those in the community who are older adults, have a chronic illness, are low-income, and more are able to receive financial aid for their qualifying projects. While overall this program has been a success, this endeavor has not been without its challenges.
This funding and technical support has been provided to all members of the community to support the implementation of fire-resistant landscaping, building code compliance, technical support, and more.
While many have taken advantage of the help being offered, we must consider the communities within the county that may not be reached by the current outreach methods. This could include people who live in remote communities, have a disability, chronic illness, speak a language other than English, have difficulties operating technology, or who are busy working to make ends meet.
As we work to expand the accessibility of our program and attempt to preach outside of the choir, we are devising new strategies to reach more people. This is vital as many of the aforementioned groups can be the most affected by the devastating effects of wildfires.
In fact, a study conducted after the 2018 Camp Fire by Catrin Edgeley looked at the recovery efforts following the exceptionally devastating wildfire. Her research results point to the fact that certain populations are faced with more challenges than others. Particularly, older adults and low-income residents are shown to have difficulties not only with evacuating and preparing, but particularly with the recovery process in the event of a loss in property (Edgeley 2018). Just as recovery resources may not be distributed equally, prevention information and resources face the same barriers. The same populations who are struggling to rebuild are likely the same who struggled to protect their homes to begin with. As fire trends continue to increase, I cannot help but imagine the unpropitious cycle of devastation some populations could be found in if proper intervention is not made a priority. This question of equity in prevention efforts in particular, is one that MWPA is striving to address with their ongoing projects.
A portion of the first half of my fellowship has been dedicated to helping work through some of the issues in the grant application process and trying to increase accessibility to the program. In addition, I have also spent a lot of time answering resident’s questions. Many residents struggle with technical difficulties and either need assistance troubleshooting the online application or may not have access to the internet. For the latter case, I created a paper application to be sent to residents who do not have the ability to apply online. Furthermore, we have struggled to spread awareness about the program and to be sure those who live in remote areas, have connection issues, or any other potential barriers are receiving equal opportunity to apply. To help spread awareness, I have created a pamphlet to be included with the fire evaluation paperwork, in order to provide a tangible solution right alongside the discovery reports. I feel as though this will help residents not feel as overwhelmed by the list of discoveries. This provides them with a helping hand right away, and provides contact information so they do not have to move through the process alone.
While these solutions are good additions to an already well-thought out program, the MWPA is already considering ways to improve the program for the next fiscal year. With so many barriers to participation, we want to simplify the process as much as possible.
One barrier we would like to address is the issue of reimbursement. For residents who are low-income, fronting hundreds or even thousands of dollars to harden their homes or create defensible space is not always a realistic option.
To address this problem we are hoping to implement a system where residents can have qualified contractors and crews complete the work on their property at the MWPA’s expense. This direct abatement would relieve the uncertainty that some may feel with the current system. We also hope to increase the award limits on each application to help residents take on larger projects.
Those are just two examples of ways the MWPA is working to make their grant program more accessible to all residents. With 4.8 million U.S. homes being identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire (2 million in California alone), this is an issue that simply cannot be ignored (Verisk 2021). These are vital conversations that we will continue to have as we attempt to identify the most vulnerable communities and new ways to meet their needs. I am looking forward to all of the indispensable work the MWPA will continue to do over the next decade.
Defensible Space and Home Hardening Evaluation and Inspection Program.” MWPA, 2021, https://www.marinwildfire.org/project/defensible-space-and-home-hardening-evaluation-and-inspection-program.
Edgeley, Catrin M. “Exploring the Social Legacy of Frequent Wildfires: Organizational Responses for Community Recovery Following the 2018 Camp Fire.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, vol. 70, 15 Feb. 2022, p. 102772., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2021.102772.
2021 Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis.” Verisk, https://www.verisk.com/insurance/campaigns/location-fireline-state-risk-report/.
Wildfire Demo 2019.” Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, 1 Oct. 2019, https://ibhs.org/wildfire/wildfire-demo-2019/.