Town officials in Portola Valley, a leafy and affluent enclave on the edge of Silicon Valley, have refused to accept the Cal Fire map. They're worried about the potential financial implications of the "redlining."
"A lot of the community members feel (a VH designation) would be used against them to raise rates or cancel insurance," says Richard Crevelt, president of the Highlands Homeowners Association, which represents residents of a red-zoned neighborhood. There's no evidence that this has happened, Crevelt says, but that doesn't stop the speculation.
For his part, Sapsis says it would be a "gross misuse" of the mapping process for an insurer to deny coverage or increase premiums based on a Cal Fire map. The maps don't reflect on-the-ground variables, such as the type of construction materials used or how well the brush has been thinned. But Pete Moraga of the Insurance Information Network of California, an industry group, acknowledges the possibility that some insurers will consider Cal Fire's maps as they decide how, or whether, to underwrite a particular piece of property. "Those people who aren't in the high fire areas shouldn't be subsidizing those in the high-risk areas," he says. "If you choose to live in a higher-risk area, you should be prepared to pay higher rates."
Homeowners resent another legal implication of VH listing. Under California law, owners selling property in VH areas are required to disclose that designation to buyers. Residents worry that their sale prices might decline as a result -- especially if similar neighborhoods nearby have a fire hazard that's only listed as High.
One 2006 study examined the effects of the disclosure requirement, which has been on the books since 1998. Surprisingly, it found that average prices for homes in VH areas were in fact 3 percent higher than prices for comparable homes outside those areas. If the high-hazard homes were within a few miles of a recent fire, though, their prices were on average 5 percent lower.
Admittedly, that study was completed before last year's real estate meltdown, and before the recent high-profile California fires that have scorched neighborhoods from Lake Tahoe to Santa Barbara. But it does suggest that the benefits of living in highly hazardous areas, such as sweeping views, proximity to undeveloped areas, or thick surrounding vegetation, often outweigh the hazards -- until a fire strikes. "Many of these places are beautiful," says Moraga, "but it's a cruel beauty."
Cal Fire lacks the legal power to force municipalities to approve its maps, and it's likely that Portola Valley will refuse to do so. But in May, the town council revised its building code standards to be even tougher than the new statewide ones. The new code will affect the whole town, not just the neighborhood Cal Fire considers a VH zone.
Town planner Leslie Lambert thinks that's fair, and she hopes it will also persuade residents to deal with fire-susceptible yards. "Some properties are pretty overgrown," she says. "Everybody's pretty conscious about fire, but it really is time we do more."
Perhaps the ultimate sign of the changing attitude toward wildfire is the increasing popularity of the "stay and defend" philosophy -- the idea that well-prepared residents ought to defend their own roofs, decks and lawns in a wildfire.
It's a philosophy that has gained wide currency in Australia, although it came under serious criticism after conflagrations killed more than 200 people there last February. The idea, essentially, is that residents of fire-prone neighborhoods need not get in firefighters' way. Rather, they can be trained in basic firefighting, provided with hoses, radios and fire-resistant clothing, and prepared for the intense psychological commitment of staying home while the trees in the yard burst into flame.
The full name of the Australian policy is "Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early," notes Moritz, and he emphasizes the "prepare" part. The key, he says, is making a property as fire-safe as possible, and then deciding early whether to stay or go.
The idea hasn't caught on here, at least not officially. In February, fire chiefs in San Diego County held a press conference to denounce it. They fear, with justification, that fire-threatened residents will stay home, then panic at the last minute and try to flee. That's how most of the Tunnel Fire victims died.
But the fire chiefs may be behind the curve on this. The example of Richard Martin is a case in point. A retired professor, he built a fireproof bunker at his house in Santa Barbara's Mission Canyon. He cleared vegetation and installed sprinklers on the roof. When fire raced through the canyon this May, he and his wife ignored police orders to leave. They hunkered down, emerging occasionally to hose down hot spots. And their house survived. Dozens of others nearby did not. When the neighbors rebuild, they're likely to take note.
"People are trying this already," notes Moritz. "The authorities hate it, but they need to know that some people are going to try this."
This article was supported by a Western Enterprise Reporting Fellowship from Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West.
Peter Friederici teaches journalism at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.