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California is implementing a three-pronged approach dubbed “Safer from Wildfires” to reduce the wildfire risk of older homes, including measures to harden homes, their immediate surroundings and the communities they are in.
California has existing wildfire building standards for homes built after 2008. But as catastrophic megafires drive up the cost of insuring homes and thousands of homeowners in rural areas are dropped by insurers, the new standards would prompt insurance companies to offer discounts, providing incentives for retrofitting older homes, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said.
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“Reducing the wildfire risk is critical to making insurance available, reliable and affordable for all Californians,” Lara said.
There are 12 insurance companies representing 40% of the insurance market already offering discounts to homeowners taking hardening measures. Three years ago, only 7% of the market was offered such discounts, Lara said.
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But he said he wants to see broader discount programs and thinks a uniform set of standards, based on scientific research, will give homeowners, communities and insurance companies a shared strategy for reducing wildfire risks. Here are the new standards at a glance:
Protecting the structure:
- Class-A fire rated roof
- Maintain a 5-foot ember-resistant zone around a home (including fencing within 5 feet)
- Noncombustible 6 inches at the bottom of exterior walls
- Ember and fire-resistant vents
- Upgraded windows (double-paned or added shutters)
- Enclosed eaves
Protecting immediate surroundings
- Cleared vegetation and debris from under decks
- Removal of combustible sheds and other outbuildings from the immediate surroundings of the home, to at least a distance of 30 feet
- Defensible space compliance (including trimming trees, removal of brush and debris from yard, and compliance with state law and local ordinances)
Working together as a community
- A community should have a clearly defined boundary and a local risk assessment in consultation with the local fire district or state fire agency;
- An identified evacuation route, cleared of vegetative overgrowth, and evacuation plan contingencies;
- Clear funding sources to implement community mitigation activities and meet clear risk reduction goals; and
- Integrated and up-to-date local planning documents pertinent to community wildfire risk. These plans should have measurable goals for risk reduction each year and specific annual education and awareness actions.
Source: California Department of Insurance
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Nearly 50,000 homes destroyed by wildfires in California since 2017
“The framework will help me as a regulator of the nation’s largest insurance market to expand insurance incentives to homes and businesses and that will save money and encourage safety,” he said.
The guidelines follow a year of work by the insurance commissioner and four state agencies charged with wildfire response and prevention.
The participating agencies include the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.
Since 2017, nearly 50,000 homes have been destroyed by wildfires in California and taking proactive steps to protect properties before a fire starts is critical, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
“Those homeowners that actually take the time to become prepared by taking actions like these we’re discussing today are going to be more resilient and will be able to deal with the impacts of these kinds of disasters and of course recover more quickly,” he said.
Homeowners and communities will have access to millions of dollars from state and federal grants to help them make their homes and neighborhoods more resilient, officials said.
Stronger California, a coalition of homeowners insurers, said it welcomed the new standards, which reflect input from many stakeholders across the state.
“Policies like these are already being implemented by many insurers which will help us achieve the common goal of accessible insurance for all homeowners in California,” it said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.