By Adria Watson, CalMatters
Californians have all but adapted to a new normal. In the last four years, the state has experienced 10 of the most destructive wildfires in its history.
The 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that destroyed nearly 19,000 structures and killed 85 people was the deadliest on record. And though the 2019 fire season has not been as active, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County triggered the evacuation of some 200,000 residents while the Getty Fire last month forced Angelenos from Mount St. Mary’s University to LeBron James’s neighborhood in Brentwood to flee.
State and fire officials are adapting by changing firefighting tactics, improving emergency response plans and adding high-tech cameras, radar and infrared equipment to their arsenal of fire-fighting tools. But for all that the government is doing, the public needs to pitch in, because one in three homes is located in the urban-wildland interface. With an estimated 11 million residents living in high fire-threat areas, it’s no wonder Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers are demanding property owners take responsibility for fireproofing their homes.
This year, the Legislature passed several bills aimed at encouraging home hardening. Among them: AB38 by Democratic Assemblyman Jim Woods of Santa Rosa, requiring property sellers in high fire-threat zones to disclose fire safety improvements. And SB190 directs the state fire marshal to develop a defensible space program. The bill by Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa gives local governments the authority to impose an abatement lien if they fail to create and maintain defensible space around their homes.
So how can homeowners now help themselves?
First, find out whether your home is located in a high fire threat area. The California Public Utilities Commission recently developed a searchable fire map to help residents determine their fire risk.
If you are in the high-risk zone, Cal Fire has recommendations for hardening a home for wildfire season. Some suggestions are high-cost, such as replacing wood or shingle roofs and single-pane windows, or using ignition-resistant materials for decks, patios and fences.
But if spending tens of thousands of dollars isn’t in your budget, there are still many low-cost preventive measures worth trying. Here are a cheap and effective few:
1. Fire-resistant landscaping
Cost: $20 and up
French lavender, red monkey flower, sage, California fuchsia, and California lilac. These are only a few of the beautiful and affordable fire-resistant plants that can be used to strategically resist the spread of fire to your home. A gardener can re-landscape your home in an afternoon for a few hundred dollars, or a family can turn it into a fun weekend do-it-yourself project. An added bonus? Fire-resistant plants are usually also drought tolerant.
2. A good pair of pruners
Cost: $30 and up
Cal Fire suggests trimming trees, branches and clearing bushes around defensible spaces — areas that are usually up to 5 feet from the home. Trees should be cut regularly so that branches are a minimum of 10 feet from other trees. Remove branches that hang over a roof and keep dead branches 10 feet away from a chimney. A gardening crew can do this for a few hundred dollars, but homeowners on a budget can also do it themselves.
3. Ember-resistant vents
Cost: About $50 per vent
Open vents act as backdoors for embers. Hours after a blaze appears to be extinguished, a smoldering wildfire fragment can ignite a new fire from inside a home. Fire officials recommend covering vent openings with ⅛-inch or ¼-inch metal mesh. The wire mesh should be very small and stay away from material that can melt and burn such as fiberglass or plastic — fireproof vents are also available at your local hardware store. Again, homeowners can pay a handyman or contractor a modest fee to do this, or do it themselves.
4. Garden hoses
Keep multiple gardening hoses on your property. Make sure they are long enough to reach around the house and other structures. Fire officials also recommend getting a pump if you have a pool.
Cost: $20 and up
President Donald Trump was razzed for suggesting that Finland has fewer wildfires because of all the “raking and cleaning” Finns purportedly do in their forests. Finns were flummoxed by the remark — their fire management apparently doesn’t hinge on raking — but fire officials recommend it highly for homeowners in fire-prone neighborhoods. Clearing all dead plants, leaves and pine needles from your yard will go a long way toward removing fuel for wildfires. It’s also a good idea to get up on a ladder and pull out any vegetation that may have collected in rain gutters. Gutter cleaning services will do this for a couple hundred dollars for homeowners who don’t want to do it themselves.
6. Weather stripping
Cost: $10 and up
Just as you want to stop embers from blowing into vents, you should also block them from slipping through doorways. Pro tip: Don’t forget to install weather stripping around and under the garage door. This can be DIY, or homeowners can spend a few hundred dollars on a service. As a bonus, weather stripping also helps keep down your heating and cooling bill.
7. The goat-to option
Cost: About $1,000 an acre
Goats can help with vegetation management by eating tall grass or dried brush that could spread without containment. Goat Central owner Roy Austin in El Dorado has been renting goats for 20 years and said these four-legged fire mitigators can “go where machine and chemicals can’t be used.” Plus, they provide fertilization.
Goats tend to cost less than hand crews. The city of Laguna Beach put out a wildfire mitigation report pegging the average cost for a crew to do hand modification at $28,000 per acre. That compares to around $1,000 per acre for a herd of goats, depending on vegetation and labor, Austin said. And the more acreage, the more likely you can negotiate a lower price.
Act fast, though. Austin says recent demand is driving up prices. He’s commanding $1,800 per acre right now.
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