California's trial by fire
Will a longer wildfire season force states in the West to focus on prevention?
Ongoing drought and thickening underbrush are lengthening California's wildfire season. That justifies the governor's call for more money to fight the flames, but like the mega-fires already burning on the coast, the challenge is so much bigger than cash for fire engines.
Not just in California, but in the greater West, a season that used to run from May into August or September – depending on the area – now starts in April or earlier and can stretch into October.
That puts stress not only on crews, but on budgets. In deficit-challenged California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed a yearly surcharge on property insurance – about $12 in more hazardous rural areas and $6 in urban ones – to pay for more firefighters, engines, and helicopters.
That's all well for dealing with symptoms, and even follows the recommendation of a recent blue-ribbon panel – though the governor should rethink forcing city folk to pay for the risky choices of their country cousins.
But officials from the local on up to the federal level must make a much greater effort at fighting fires before they start. Over time, fire prevention has the greater potential to protect lives and property, yet it continually receives the short end of the financial fire hose.
In 2007, only 20 percent of the fire budget for the federal agencies that deal with wildfires went to hazardous fuel reduction, prevention, and education programs. In California, the vast majority of fire funds go to putting out fires – the cost of which has more than doubled in the past decade.
And yet the state is somewhat of a leader in prevention. After the devastating 2003 fires, it increased the size of property perimeters that must be cleared of dangerous brush from 30 to 100 feet.
In January, it tightened its statewide building code, becoming the first state to mandate flame-retardant construction on new buildings in fire-prone areas. Research shows that flying embers not only land on roofs, they get swept up into vents, and so a new kind of vent covering must now be used, as well as a kind of double-paned, tempered glass that won't break in extreme heat.
The insurance industry can play a role, too. State Farm, for instance, offers lower premiums to homeowners who move woodpiles, debris, and branches away from their houses. Insurers can have an impact by encouraging property owners to retrofit for fireproofing – replacing wood shake roofs, for example.
But tighter regulations do no good without tight enforcement.
Last year, when wildfires swept through San Diego County, five communities in Rancho Santa Fe escaped unscathed. A huge reason for that was building standards, including sprinklers, but another was tight enforcement. The fire marshal and homeowner associations conduct yearly inspections and crack the whip on vegetation no-no's like cypress trees.
Tested by back-to-back years of scorching fire seasons, California is gradually learning. This year, state Sen. Christine Kehoe, a Democrat, has proposed a bill that would charge $50 per rural homeowner to pay for fire-prevention measures, including annual inspections.
That's a strategy that puts first things first, and makes all the risk-takers pay for protection.