A Local Model for Wildfire Readiness

June 9, 2020

Recently, CAL FIRE announced it would ask property owners to complete “defensible space” self-assessments, as the department is limiting property inspections this year due to social distancing.

California law requires property owners in some fire-prone areas to take certain measures to protect their property against wildfire. Local jurisdictions in high-hazard areas may set even stricter standards. The resulting fire buffer area – at a minimum, 100 feet around each structure on the property – is called “defensible space.” That space helps protect the buildings and other structures from wildfire and it creates a safer environment for firefighters. CAL FIRE enforces these rules in areas of state responsibility.

In 2014, the Little Hoover Commission studied defensible space enforcement as part of a larger project on climate change adaptation, and found opportunities to better protect Californians’ homes and the firefighters defending them. In its subsequent report, Governing California through Climate Change, the Commission called upon the state to more aggressively enforce defensible space requirements and strongly suggested using Ventura County as a model.

In Ventura County, the county notifies property owners of their defensible space obligations about a month and a half before inspections. If violations are found upon inspection, property owners are given seven to 14 days to correct them. If there are still violations upon re-inspection, the county immediately dispatches contractors to bring the property up to code and bills the owner for costs along with a hefty administrative fee.

In contrast, state law is more forgiving. It requires someone to be convicted of three violations within a five-year period before CAL FIRE can intervene to bring the property up to code. CAL FIRE focuses on education. From a colorful user-friendly website to commissioning a ballad on defensible space, the department constantly works to educate Californians about steps they can take to protect themselves from wildfire. Sometimes the educational approach is preferable even when there are available resources for enforcement: In a 2019 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, a CAL FIRE inspector explained that not all residents are pleased to see government officials show up on their property, and it can be more productive to frame the conversation as tips to protect residents and their neighbors instead of threatening to punish them for noncompliance.

The Ventura County model gets results. During the October 2003 wildfires that devastated Ventura, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties, only 24 of the 3,600 homes destroyed were in Ventura County. When it first implemented the program more than three decades ago, Ventura County had to clear hundreds of noncompliant properties itself each year. Consistent enforcement has helped. In the data shared with the Commission from 2006, the county only had to clear 18 of the nearly 15,000 properties in the wildland-urban interface. Data from 2018 show the county only had to clear 24 of about 16,600 parcels. Usually about 90 percent of people get it right the first time, thereby eliminating the need for re-inspection.

As policymakers consider future ways to ensure that homes are better protected from fire, they should consider the Commission’s recommendation to use a workable model from local government.

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