Wildfire mitigation program helps homeowners create safer communities

 

With years of experience bracing for wildfire along Colorado’s Front Range, it’s no surprise that Boulder County is launching a new program – Wildfire Partners – that may mean the start of a paradigm shift in wildfire mitigation.

“The old approach was firefighters were responsible for saving homes from wildfire,” said Jim Webster, Wildfire Partners’ program manager. “The new approach, the new emphasis, is shifting responsibility to homeowners. This program empowers homeowners to be able to take that personal responsibility.”

Wildfire Partners is a new voluntary program to help homeowners in Boulder County prepare for wildfire. It starts with an on-site expert assessment of residents' properties, leading to specific mitigation recommendations – which could include anything from removing whole trees to cleaning dried leaves from gutters. The program offers financial incentives to defray initial mitigation costs – including at least $300 in rebates – and other benefits, such as free telephone access to trained advisors. It also includes a free follow-up inspection, and a Wildfire Partners certificate for homeowners who successfully complete the mitigation specifically recommended for their home.

The program boasts a wide range of public and private sector collaboration, including representatives of the insurance industry. Insurers will be watching how the new program proceeds, in order to determine whether a Wildfire Partners certificate could make a property more insurable. Of the 445 residents who applied, 400 will be officially accepted into the program next week. Participants must be homeowners in unincorporated Boulder County, or nearby mountain towns of Nederland, Jamestown or Lyons; they must also agree to home inspections and prove a long-term commitment to the program.

Giving individual attention to the priorities of each homeowner and each neighborhood is key to forging community buy-in for new mitigation plans, says Molly Mowery, founder of Colorado-based consulting firm Wildfire Planning International and the former manager of a National Fire Protection Association program that helps communities across the U.S. take responsibility for their fire risk. Mowery is one of the eight new wildfire mitigation specialists contracted by Wildfire Partners.

“The biggest catch is how to motivate people to work together,” Mowery said. “We need to get everyone on the same page enough so that you can make community-wide decisions.”


This image from State Farm, the largest insurance company in Colorado and the U.S., shows homeowners in a high-risk fire zone near Possum Kingdom, Texas. State Farm is represented on the Wildfire Partners advisory board.

In one household or neighborhood, maintaining trails and recreation areas may be the priority. In others, it may be protecting the watershed, combating the heightened risk of floods caused by burn scars, or preserving the local tourist economy. Mowery thinks that by using individual and community values as a starting point for the on-site assessments, rather than approaching it purely from a wildfire management perspective, the Wildfire Partners approach is more likely to succeed at getting homeowners to do mitigation and stick to it. In similar programs, homeowners often are initially gung ho at pruning trees and keeping their property fire-ready, but their commitment falls off in the long term.

“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” Webster said. “There’s no use doing wildfire mitigation once and then stopping.”

The Wildfire Partners certificate – which will have to be kept up to date over the long term – is designed as inspiration to keep running that marathon, one that could potentially lead to reduced property insurance rates. But insurance companies haven’t quite made any commitments yet. To explore this potential, representatives from some of the area’s major insurance providers sit on the Wildfire Partners advisory committee, which met for the first time earlier this week.

“This is the largest concerted effort that we’ve had with the insurance industry,” Webster said. Mike Benschneider, director of public policy for Farmers Insurance and a member of the advisory committee, thinks the program will be a huge benefit to homeowners in wildfire-prone areas.

“I’m hoping we can get enough success and interest so we can use this model to expand – not only in Colorado but across the country,” he said. “At this point in the program – and it’s very much in its infancy – it’s difficult to say how insurance companies will react,” for example, by offering lower rates if a homeowner earns a Wildfire Partners certificate.

But ultimately Wildfire Partners could benefit insurers themselves, since their bottom line relies in part on making high-risk properties insurable. Wildfire Partners’ mitigation specialists use the latest wildfire prevention science and methods and a collaborative, individualized approach - whereas an insurance company may only give homeowners broad guidelines that can be too general to meet a property’s specific mitigation needs. By supporting the program and its certificate, insurers would essentially be ensuring that homeowners in high-risk wildfire zones are on the cutting edge of fire prevention in the region, if all goes as planned.

Ray Rasker, director of a research group leading a West-wide effort to foster bold wildfire mitigation policy changes for undeveloped areas of the wildland-urban interface – or the WUI, where residential areas abut the public forest – said using insurance as an incentive isn’t going to fix the whole problem, though it’s a good start for existing homes.

“There is no way for insurance rates to go high enough to dissuade someone from building in the WUI,” he said. But according to Webster, Boulder County is among the places that already have aggressive rules for new development that attempt to keep a buffer zone between homes and wildfire zones.

This pilot year of Wildfire Partners is funded through the county (covering salaries and administrative costs) and a $980,000 Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. $250,000 of that is earmarked for mitigation rebates for homeowners – an incentive that might not last beyond the pilot year. Delays in the program launch – in part as a result of Colorado’s September floods diverting the county’s attention – meant that training began this week, and on-site assessments begin in late March or April. By June, the onset of wildfire season may already put the program to the test.

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.