New Report Says Fire-Prone Communities Often Unprepared for Risks, Lacking Local Resources for Preventive Measures to Protect Homes, Property

Federal Resources Shrink as Front Line Population Surges and More Drought Looms
SAN FRANCISCO (October 24, 2007) – As blazes erupt across California, the authors of a new report released today warn that many of the region’s booming communities have not taken steps ahead of time that have been proven to protect properties and prevent losses. One major reason, they say, is that federal funding for such measures has shrunk dramatically in recent years, even as the number of people living in high-risk fire areas keeps growing.
Entitled ‘Safe at Home: Making the Federal Fire Safety Budget Work for Communities,’ the report was prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It notes that federal funding for state and local community fire protection programs has been slashed from $148.5 million in Fiscal Year 2001 to $85 million proposed by the Bush administration in the fiscal 2008 budget.
“They’re slashing resources for crucial fire protection measures at the very same time that the number of people whose homes and livelihoods are at stake is soaring,” said NRDC Senior Policy Analyst Amy Mall. “Communities are being left to their own devices when it comes to basic prevention and protection. Officials should be putting public money where the public lives.”
In total, only three percent of the $2.6 billion federal fire budget is dedicated to supporting state and local fire departments, which are where people turn to most often for information and assistance about proven methods of protecting local homes and communities from wildfires. A much larger share of federal fire prevention money goes to subsidize private timber company logging in remote, uninhabited areas away from the homes and businesses at risk.
The report also presents results of a pilot study in Love Creek, California, a typical fire-prone community adjacent to a national forest in the Sierra Nevada region where not a single home evaluated met minimum standards recommended to increase the odds of surviving a forest fire.
The good news is that fixes are relatively easy and affordable, according to NRDC policy experts. Using standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association, NRDC found the average price tag for fire survivability measures for a home in the area was about $2,500. The report also finds that the average cost to reduce flammable vegetation around a home in this heavily forested community is an additional $550 per acre.
“People want to do the right thing to protect their homes, but too often they’re not getting the needed guidance or they don’t have the financial ability,” said Ronny Coleman, former California State Fire Marshal and a consultant for the study.
There are a range of measures that people can take to improve survivability for both people and property in fire-prone areas, but it often takes coordinated effort to make it happen on a community-wide scale. Steps include:
  • Remove flammable vegetation and landscaping from the immediate vicinity of the home;
  • Screening vents that can allow in embers and enclose eaves and ignite;
  • Install solid core doors that can withstand higher temperatures before igniting;
  • Replace easily breakable single-pane windows with double-pane windows or tempered glass, or cover single-pane windows with window covers to keep fire outside the building;
  • Install fire-resistant roofing;
  • Apply fire resistant coating to outdoor decks, or enclose the underside of a deck to make less vulnerable to flames; and
  • Make sure the street address is clearly visible to ensure that fire crews can locate and access the home in case of fire.
NRDC is calling for Congress to redirect the federal fire program. Funding should be shifted away from counterproductive programs such as subsidized logging and road-building that can potentially increase fire risk and channeled into programs that can most increase fire safety. In particular, the Forest Service hazardous fuels reduction program budget – currently used to fund unproved fire prevention techniques – should be directly funding community fire protection needs.
“Protecting homes and communities from fires is job number one,” said Mall. “Congress should insist that the federal fire budget reflect the national priority to protect homes.”