Climate scientists have been warning for some time that the threat of wildfires would increase. The intensity and widespread damage of the recent fires across the West Coast are a great danger to homeowners. In California alone, a record-setting four million acres have been burned this year, surpassing 2018’s high of 1.9 million acres. Several California and Oregon towns were ravaged by fire this year, with over 4,000 homes destroyed. If you live in areas that are at risk for fires, taking proactive steps to protect your loved ones and your property is essential. 

Residents in communities such as Wallowa Lake in Washington have taken fire safety into their hands. Although state and federal agencies provide fire services to the area, the agencies are strained due to the number of areas declared high-risk zones, spreading resources thin. Wallowa Lake residents have formed a Firewise community. 

According to Michelle Steinberg, Wildfire Division Director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), “The Firewise USA® recognition program is administered by NFPA and co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.” The voluntary program “provides a framework for neighbors to get organized, find direction, and take action to increase the ignition resistance of their homes and the community as a whole,” she says. 

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Now that Wallowa Lake is a Firewise community, residents are working with the local Forestland Program Manager to create an action plan to reduce the chances of fire — and the damages that come with it. Besides the level of support, educational resources and training available through the program, Firewise communities have access to grants to pay for forest thinning, the purchase of equipment and other efforts. The added fire-safety measures the program encourages could help participating residents reduce homeowners insurance costs.

Rising Homeowners Insurance Rates Due to Recent Wildfires

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reports that climate change is the key factor behind the sharp increase in wildfires. Increasing temperatures, precipitation and the presence of trees and shrubs that could potentially serve as fuel are all related to climate change. As droughts and hotter temperatures become more common, fuel sources such as shrubs are more likely to ignite, fueling large and difficult to control fires.

The areas at the highest risk for wildfires is widespread, affecting millions of homeowners. According to maps of fire risk from the National Interagency Fire Center, 13 states are in the red zone for the remainder of the wildfire season. They include California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho.

Much of the West Coast is seeing an increased chance of damaging wildfires this fall. (Image courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center)

Insurance companies in the red-zone states have been taking a hit for years. It’s too soon to tell how much the 2020 wildfires will cost insurance companies, but the November 2018 California wildfires cost insurers $11.4 billion in claims. Consequently, homeowners are bracing for an increase in fire insurance rates — or even getting dropped from their existing homeowners insurance coverage

What’s Involved in Making Your Community Firewise?

According to Steinberg, “We have seen growing interest across western states over the past year or two, including California, Oregon and Washington.” But what is required to make your community “Firewise”?

Steinberg recommends starting by reviewing the resources at www.firewise.org. There are tip sheets, videos about wildfire behavior and steps homeowners can take to protect themselves. The website also includes an up-to-date map of other Firewise USA®  communities. “Homeowners might want to visit or connect with participating neighboring communities to learn more about what they’re doing,” she says.

As mentioned, participation in the program is entirely voluntary. To become a Firewise USA® site, there a few steps to become certified:

Get Organized

Meet with neighbors to form a committee. Firewise sites must be between 8 and 2,500 individual single-family dwelling units. Once you have the minimum number of homes participating, invite elected officials and representatives from the local fire department, state forestry agency and/or property management company (if applicable). 

Order a Wildfire Risk Assessment

Obtain a written wildfire risk assessment from your state forestry agency or fire department for the community. The assessment should focus on the condition of the homes and their risk of ignition, including the community’s strengths and areas where improvements could be made. Firewise provides a helpful assessment template

Create an Action Plan

Your committee should develop an action plan — a priority list of projects that will reduce the risk of fire for the area. It should include homeowner tasks/actions and periodic training for all participants. The action plan should be updated at least every three years.

Put the Plan To Action

Hold an outreach meeting for all neighbors to highlight the community’s strategy. Enlist neighbors to volunteer in any necessary activities and improvements on the action plan.

Firewise requires participating communities to invest at least one volunteer hour per dwelling each year in wildfire risk reduction activities.

Apply

Sites can apply online at portal.firewise.org. You’ll need to tell Firewise about the efforts your community is taking to reduce fire risks at the homeowners level. 

How Being Firewise Can Improve Your Homeowners Insurance Rates

Home insurance companies create rates based on your level of risk for a loss. If you’re actively involved in lowering the chances of reducing fires at your home by trimming back trees and reducing dry brush and leaves, you’re likely to see savings on your premiums.

In addition, USAA policyholders participating in a Firewise USA® recognition program will earn homeowners insurance discounts in 11 states. The states are

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • New Mexico
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, extreme weather events like devastating wildfires are here to stay. Homeowners living in high-risk zones face increased chances their properties may be damaged or lost. If you live in red-zones for fires, there are steps you can take to protect your property and save money on your home insurance. And one of the most effective steps may be enlisting a few neighbors and organizing your community as a Firewise USA® site.

Featured photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

About the Authors

Cynthia Paez Bowman is a home and personal finance writer with a degree in International Business and Journalism from American University. She’s written about internet and TV for MYMOVE, Freshome and Safety.com.