Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fire hazard maps upset residents

California has a law that requires communities to provide maps showing the level of risk from a wildland fire, and that owners of homes at very high risk must disclose that before selling their properties. Some residents of the city of Vista, north of San Diego, were disturbed when they recently saw the ratings for their homes.

The city council was scheduled to approve the new map last week, but after receiving dozens of complaints removed the item from their agenda. Now they are going to have two more community meetings to "explain more about how this works", said Fire Chief Gary Fisher.

Some residents are concerned that high fire risk ratings will lower their property values, make it more difficult to sell their homes, raise their insurance rates, or even make it impossible to find fire insurance.

They may be right. Allstate insurance has stopped selling new policies in California due to massive claims resulting from wildland fires. Some other companies are requiring vegetation clearances of 1,000-1,500 feet around structures.

The crew of Engine 57 died two years ago trying to protect a house that had inadequate clearance and was located at the top of a chute. The Esperanza fire zeroed in on that house, and the firefighters protecting it, like it was shot out of a rifle.

Would the Esperanza fire have turned out differently if that house at the top of the chute had been publicly identified as high risk, been properly evaluated by an insurance company, or had adequate fire clearance? Or would it have been there at all if the fire risk were known and made public?

Firefighters need these fire risk assessment systems. Home owners need them too.

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