Cal Fire Hears Concerns about Fire Hazard Severity Map
(LAKECO NEWS 1/29/2023)— During a Tuesday morning hearing, members of the Lake County Board of Supervisors, the Lakeport Fire Protection District chief and Lake County residents raised concerns about the potential impact of a new statewide fire hazard severity zone map and how it could cause more challenges for county residents when it comes to fire insurance.
Cal Fire held a public hearing on the new map during the Board of Supervisors meeting.
Community members were allowed to give comments in person but not via Zoom, a requirement that was not stated in the public hearing announcement.
Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said those on Zoom who wanted to give comments in person could go to a meeting in another county.
However, comments can still be submitted in writing until April 4th.
The map looks at how much of the State Responsibility Area, or SRA, overseen by Cal Fire, is in various risk categories.
In a December announcement on the release of the map, Cal Fire said the new revision only updates areas in the SRA, which is described as California’s “unincorporated, rural areas, where wildfires tend to be frequent.”
The previous version of the map was created in 2007. The new version shows much of the state now moving into the “high risk” category, including most of Lake County.
Cal Fire’s map takes no account of defensible space — a practice Cal Fire urges homeowners to follow — and doesn’t record fire history or recent changes in landscape. It puts more store on landscape and how fire might behave. A computer algorithm is key to the analysis.
In Lake County, there are 395,373 acres in the SRA, a growth of 575 acres since 2007.
Of that total SRA acreage in Lake County, 366,812 acres are in the “very high” fire severity category, with 22,343 acres in the “high” and 6,218 acres in the “moderate” categories.
In this newest map, the “very high” category in Lake County has grown by 31.5%.
In addition, the percentage of Lake County’s SRA in the “very high” category is 92.8%. Counties with higher percentages of their SRA acreage in that highest category are Orange, with 96.7%; Trinity with 96.5%; Ventura, 95.9%; and Los Angeles, at 93%.
Turbeville presided over the public hearing on behalf of Cal Fire, explaining the map and showing a short video.
The video explained that the map models fire and applies scientific methods to model fire behavior like spread and intensity. They use factors such as slope and vegetation in their calculations.
The fire hazard severity model for wildland fire has two key elements — probability of an area burning and expected fire behavior under extreme fuel and weather conditions. The video said that the probability of an area burning is calculated using fire history from 1991 to 2020.
Cal Fire then estimates potential flame length based on vegetation type and climate.
Fire hazard severity zones are intended to measure potential hazards across multiple decades. Cal Fire uses a long term look at fuel development and does not adjust data inputs to account for recent fire or fuel management activities. Their goal is to know what a fire would be like in the worst fuel condition in an area.
Community members speak to concerns about the map
The California Insurance Commissioner’s Office said the maps “are intended to drive local planning decisions, not insurance decisions,” and that under Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara’s new regulation finalized in October 2022, “insurance companies must provide
discounts for wildfire safety actions such as community mitigation and home-hardening, which Cal Fire’s maps do not assess. In addition, insurance companies are already using risk analysis tools and models that go beyond Cal Fire’s proposed maps in determining what properties they will underwrite.”
The public comments given during the hearing were unanimous in their criticisms and concerns about the map, and their concerns that the map is being used by insurance companies, despite Lara’s statement.
Randy Murphy, general manager of Hidden Valley Lake, said that the HVL community spends more than $1 million a year in fire mitigation efforts.
He said he hears about people all the time not getting renewed for their insurance, and he’s concerned that the map won’t help that.
Kathy Andre of Riviera Heights and Konocti Fire Safe Council said the map is being used by California insurance companies to cancel insurance, and that the California Insurance Commissioner’s Office uses it to assess fire risk, not fire hazard.
She said that practice is having drastic consequences for homeowners in high and very high fire zones.
“High fire hazard ratings and skyrocketing insurance premiums are competing to deter homeowners from doing mitigation work on their properties,” Andre said.
Bill Groody, president of the Buckingham Homeowners Association and a board member of the Konocti Fire Safe Council, pointed out that in the new map, the entire Buckingham peninsula is in the very high fire area, up from half from the last map. “That is a very significant change.”
Groody said he wasn’t there to argue about the data. “However well intentioned this map may be, we believe that it could very well undermine our efforts to reduce wildfire risk and could in fact inflict significant financial harm on the residents of Buckingham.”
He said the map is being used for underwriting and will be harmful to the council’s efforts. The council tells property owners about the benefits of weed clearing, taking down dead trees and home hardening, but when they see that their efforts are not being recognized, it makes the Fire Safe Council’s job of building a consensus around fire safety even more difficult.
“In short, the optics are terrible,” said Groody.
He called on Cal Fire to make it clear to the insurance industry in a very forceful way that this map is not intended for use as a sole source of denying coverage.
John Nowell, a retired battalion chief and another Konocti Fire Safety Council member, said the map arbitrarily placed areas in the highest severity zone.
He said the map provides an “incredible opportunity” for Cal Fire to add Firewise and Fire Safe councils to its algorithm when looking at fire risk areas.
Robert Geary, the Habematolel Pomo tribal historic preservation officer and director of cultural resources, wanted tribal communities to be included when maps are created, noting information about cultural resources is confidential.
During the board’s discussion, Supervisor Bruno Sabatier said the direction the state is going is only going to hurt rural areas.
He said rural California has not been the major contributor to climate change, but it is the major recipient of rules and regulations that will limit what can be done there.
This map and efforts to eliminate building in some parts of the state will lead to rules that will eventually eliminate any prospect of economic movement and progress in Lake County, Sabatier said. “So I’m very nervous about what this map means.”
He said the map is a slap in the face to efforts to mitigate fires. Sabatier also pointed out that since cities are exempt from being included in the SRA, he foresees that leading to a lot of cities being created or more areas annexed, as it puts unincorporated areas in an awkward situation. That’s not a good idea, economically or politically, he added.
Supervisor Moke Simon wanted to recognize the work that’s been done to deal with fire risk, from the county’s vegetation ordinance to its new home hardening program, with Lake being one of three counties statewide to have it so far. “We’re just starting to do that work.”
He raised issues with the algorithm, noting that when a computer’s making a decision, it doesn’t come out good. “This is just going to set us back.”
Simon urged community members to get their comments in and to let the governor and Cal Fire know they need to look at the situation in a different way.
Board Chair Jessica Pyska called the map a snapshot. “It doesn’t tell the whole story.”
She said that in recent years Lake County has experienced smaller fires, which she attributed to a combination of strategies from Cal Fire, local agencies and communities. Pyska said the map needs to show proactive work and layering, not just a moment in time.
“Data is critical, but so is looking at the adaptability,” Pyska said, noting that communities are working proactively.
Lakeport Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said he would like to see Cal Fire take a closer look at the mapping process, taking defensible space and home hardening into account. “Our zones are overly broad and we can narrow it down.”
He said the map is not having a good effect on the community, with his constituents asking why they are paying so much for insurance, and efforts on defensible space and home hardening, when it’s not reflected in the map.
Reitz said there is no penalty on the insurance companies for using the map against property owners. “The state has to be more aggressive and more helpful for its constituents.”
Pyska also pointed out that the map doesn’t show that entire communities have been rebuilt to the latest standards.
Supervisor Michael Green said he did not think they should game the hazard map to get a break on insurance but should accept what the hazard map says, as he believed the assessment to be “dead on.”
HOW TO COMMENT
The Office of the State Fire Marshal will accept written comments on the map through Friday, Feb. 3.
Information on the Fire Hazard Severity Zones is here:
To see how the map is proposed to change from 2007, visit this webpage:
For information presented at the Board of Supervisors hearing, visit this page:
Written comments may be submitted by U.S. mail to the following address:
Office of the State Fire Marshal
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Attn: Scott Witt, Deputy Chief
P.O. Box 944246
Sacramento, CA 94244-2460
Written comments can also be hand delivered or sent by courier to the contact person listed in this notice at the following address:
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Office of the State Fire Marshal
C/O: Scott Witt
California Natural Resources Building
715 P Street, 9th floor
Sacramento, CA 95818
Written comments may also be delivered via email at the following address: email@example.com
For questions email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 916-633-7655.
Email Elizabeth Larson at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.