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Proposed Firewise Home Certification Standard

A Proposed Nationwide Standard for Measurable & Sustainable Firewise Home Hardening


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FMC Background

The Cascadel Ranch Fire Safe Council (FMC) works to protect lives and property from wildfire through education.
The FMC program involves a collaborative community based program in the County of Madera California focused primarily on the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) of Eastern Madera County.
The program involves countywide promotion and implementation of the NFPA’s Firewise Communities program. The focus is on home hardening followed by potential national recognition.

The Cascadel Ranch Fire Safe Council is funded by Title III funds of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act specifically slated for Firewise education and mitigation activities.

Proposed Firewise Certification Concept

Based on the past few years of outreach, there is a clear need for a way to encourage home hardening in a real measurable way. A Firewise Home Certification program by the NFPA could fill that need.

Current Conditions

  • Impossibly high insurance rates
  • Folks losing their home insurance altogether
  • Home purchase financing challenges for home buyers in the WUI
  • Nationally recognized Firewise communities that aren’t actually Firewise
  • Lack of Defensible Space
  • Insufficient Public Resource Code (PRC) 4291 enforcement
  • Lack of substantive home hardening

Challenge

Motivating homeowners in the WUI to make ongoing, real, measurable, home hardening mitigation efforts that truly will protect lives and property.

Proposed Solution

The proposed solution to these challenges is the creation of an NFPA approved certification standard for “Firewise” hardened homes.
Homes that meet the proposed certification criteria, to be determined, would be certified Firewise.
The certification would guarantee that any certified structure would stand a reasonably high chance of surviving a wildfire without emergency personnel’s intervention.
This is key to the certification concept.
Currently, there is a lack of verification that recognized communities are, in fact, Firewise.
Through certification, insurance companies and lenders would receive real assurance that the structure is likely to survive a wildfire. With this assurance, they would or could be in a position to provide real incentives.
This concept leverages building codes that are already in effect, both regarding fire and other natural disasters, taken to the next level.

Hypothetical Scenario:

Below is a generic representation of a typical scenario here in Eastern Madera County.

John Doe lives in the WUI in a high-density, highly at-risk community, completely surrounded by overgrown and dying National Forest, and is listed in his local Community Wildfire Protection Plan as a community at risk.
John Doe’s home is not hardened against wildfire.
While John Doe does keep reasonably good defensible space each year, many in his neighborhood do not. The neighborhood is still thick with vegetation around structures.
As a result of FMC outreach and education, John Doe is aware that embers are the primary cause of structure fires in the WUI. He understands embers can travel for miles.
He knows his home structure is at risk, and could use improvement.
John Doe’s hypothetical home may have one or more of the following: older shake roof, plastic gutters, older outdated non-reinforced vinyl windows, vinyl screens, cedar siding, open vents, wood decks and fences connecting to the home, and so on.
On top of that, John Doe is about to lose his home insurance.
John Doe reaches out to The Cascadel Ranch Fire Safe Council.
FMC assists John Doe with a home assessment and with his mitigation efforts.

At this point, as things stand today, our hypothetical homeowner may do some clearance. He probably does some raking of leaves, cleans his gutters, maybe cleans his roof, and trims some trees.
Typically, defensible space is the most that John can achieve. But the number of homes that do not have defensible space remains chronically high in any case.
And defensible space alone is not enough. Research shows that most homes and structures ignite due to flying embers. These homes and structures can set off a wildfire chain reaction.
FMC partner CAL FIRE has been doing focused PRC 4291 home inspections so awareness of the issue is rising, but not adequately.
FMC has created a lot of buzz surrounding “home hardening” and that defensible space is not enough. The challenge is coming up with incentives. This is where a certification standard could really help.

Creating Incentive with Firewise Certification

The weak link is the structures themselves. These Eastern Madera County communities are high density, high fuel load, poor ingress egress, dead end roads. This is the reality.
In Madera County California, the Courtney Fire recently illustrated that burning structures become the threat by setting off a chain reaction.
“John Doe” may work hard to clear around his home, but all too often the home structure is not mitigated sufficiently.
Even when homes are assessed by FMC, and homeowners taught to do their own assessments and spread that skill set, the cost of doing Firewise retrofits is a real roadblock to getting home hardening done.

Insurance & Lenders

Once a home is certified as Firewise by coordinators / inspectors, insurance companies would be guaranteed a demonstrable reduction in liability.
They could then issue home insurance with confidence. They may even give discounts to certified homes.
Lenders could have the same assurances. Lenders might give discounts as well.
This process differs from the national recognition program in that the structure is inspected and certified.
There is real, measurable, home hardening.

Improved Firewise Communities USA/Recognition Program

Under the Firewise Communities USA recognition program, this proposed certification could be used to verify measurable and sustainable Firewise results.
For recognition or renewal each year, a certain number of homes hardened annually, could be a condition of receiving recognition or renewal of recognition.
Each community’s specifics, would be assessed and the requirements modified accordingly.

Matching Grant Funds

Under Title III, funds may be used to provide assistance with implementing fire wise mitigation activities within the home ignition zone.
Providing grants or partial funding for removal of vegetation from around homes and fire wise retrofits to homes is an authorized use.
Madera County, and counties across the nation, along with insurance companies, could set up Firewise funding accounts for mini-grants to homeowners taking action.
Any Title III funded activity must be:

  • Carried out in a community that is Firewise Communities USA recognized
  • Carried out by a community in order to become recognized
  • Necessary to renew recognition

Counties can help fund or support projects in the home ignition zone to make homes less vulnerable to wildfires.
The home ignition zone includes the home itself. Construction materials, and the design of the home itself, are extremely important. Embers ignite most homes in the WUI.
Educating about these factors, and assisting homeowners in implementing these practices, is authorized.
http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/pts/countyfunds/faqs

Conclusion

While certification is by no means a silver bullet, a certification would help create incentives to keep the momentum moving toward “hardened” structures with a much better chance of surviving a wildfire.
Over and over, with each fire season, we are tragically and dramatically seeing the result of living in the WUI, making us all painfully aware that ember storms are coming.
The solution isn’t to cut down all the trees, removing the very reasons we all move to the WUI in the first place.
The solution is to make our homes bulletproof against wildfire.
The reality here in the WUI of Eastern Madera County is that no amount of defensible space will ever be enough.
Some structures will always ignite and become the fuel for a chain reaction of burning homes.
Then, this tragedy becomes the ignition point for more wildfire in a vicious cycle of ever increasing wildfire damage.
The California Firewise Coordinator in Sacramento has been contacted about this proposed Firewise Home Certification concept, and recommended it be presented to NFPA for assessment.