Wildfire response: a conversation with a fire chief

Frank Frievalt

California endured the largest and most destructive wildfires in state history in 2017 and 2018. The aftermath has left many wondering whether catastrophic wildfires will be the new normal for California and other fire-prone states, and, if so, what can be done. As the 2019 wildfire season progresses, there is a sense of urgency in the discussions among homeowners and business owners, policymakers, insurance companies and community leaders about how to change the paradigm in which wildfire-prone areas manage and respond to wildfire risks.

The Insurance Information Institute was fortunate to get an opportunity to speak with someone who is on the front lines of wildfire response. Frank Frievalt is the Fire Chief at Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District and part of the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).  He is leading the insurance section of the WFCA’s Wildfire Initiative. The WFCA has recently formed a partnership with ISO and Interra to help better understand wildfire risk for communities.

I.I.I.: Many are concerned that the severity of wildfire events in the United States will only increase. Do you agree? If so, what do you think some of the major factors for this increase are?

FF: What we currently have is an alignment of factors. We have 100 years of 100 percent fire suppression policy, so fuel loadings are off the scale in environments where fire is part of the natural ecology. We have growth of houses built in the Wildland–Urban Interface (WUI) fueled by market forces (there is an estimated $250 billion in assessed home valuation in the 11 western states). There is the weather piece – the data is pretty clear that we are having a shift in climate which is not likely to change quickly. You also have ignitions which are mostly caused by people, and unless people’s general behavior improves remarkably, I don’t see any reason why the contributing factors are going to change.

I.I.I.: Tell us about the Wildfire Initiative and how you see a partnership between the WFCA and insurers developing?

Frank Frievalt:  After becoming the Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief in late 2012 I began to notice a disconnect with ISO’s FireLine risk assessment ratings for structures in WUI communities and the Defensible Space guidelines we use in the Western Fire Service. I set out to understand how ISO’s FireLine worked and reached out to ISO.

The main thing that we need to do is get technical facts empirically validated about mitigations for structural hardening that will deter ember reception at the structure. That’s how we’re losing most of the structures, it’s not direct flame contact. Once we have them identified and validated then we have to look into how these mitigations can be applied actuarially. We’ve been working with ISO who are really open to closing the knowledge gap.

Part of our goal is to have fire services and the insurance industry stand shoulder to shoulder and look at the mitigations that actually change the needle on outcomes, because we have the same goal – the protection of life and property.

I.I.I.: What are some of the public policy missteps that you see in relation to wildfire mitigation?

We’re only now coming to understand that the federal policy of 100 percent fire suppression will guarantee significant fuel loading and once the fire is established it’s going to burn extremely hot.

California has the most robust WUI code in the country; but that’s not a common situation.  Fire Chiefs we collaborate with in the West are frequently opposed by developer and even local government interests when attempting to incorporate more stringent WUI codes.

We really cannot approach the present WUI problem using past approaches from the fire service, insurance industry, or legislation; we are experiencing conditions that are significantly different from the past both as individual variables, and synergistically among each other.

I.I.I.: What do you think about recent wildfire legislation in California?

FF: Anytime there is a social disruptor people get frustrated and call their legislator, and then we start to see reactive-based legislation that is quickly passed, but frequently lacks the necessary detail to implement, track, and manage it.

About 11 months ago there was a flood of this type of legislation that hit California.  AB 1516 is one of the most significant pieces but it needs to be followed closely and massaged. It calls for a risk model advisory group and we are working with legislators on that.

The success of public policy requires public buy-in. No public policy is effective that’s just purely enforcement related. The best work that’s going to be done is not by my firefighters or insurance agents – it’s going to be done by Mr. and Mrs. Smith  annually and diligently maintaining proscribed defensible space, maintaining structural hardening (mostly retrofits), and then federal, state, and local government works on fuels management which is on the perimeter of communities.

We have got to get a connection with what we’re doing in defensible space inspections and what we’re doing in risk modeling. If my defensible space requirements are the same as the insurance company’s requirements to retain insurance at an affordable rate, then we increase our level of public buy-in to the mitigations that matter.

I.I.I.:  Could you suggest a practical list of mitigations for homeowners?

FF: This is not the definitive list, we are still working to come up with that, but here is what I can offer now:

  1. Roof Material
  2. Roof Assembly (Gaps, flashing, sub-roofing underlayment)
  3. Vents (Eaves, Attic, Foundation)
  4. Decking Material
  5. Decking Assembly (Enclosure, flashing, board gaps)
  6. Fencing
  7. Siding Material
  8. Siding Assembly (Gaps, underlayment, fire-resistivity assembly)
  9. Double-pane windows*
  10. Garage Doors

*Window assembly (an unintended consequence of the energy efficiency push led to vinyl windows, which melt and drop out making the building exposed to embers – windows are a big issue)

It’s vitally important the we collectively (and that includes I.I.I.) get involved in measuring the most cost-effective retrofit mitigations for these items. New houses can be built to new code but older houses need to retrofit.

Preliminary studies are indicating that structures built to the 2008 WUI code, and those that had a successful first WUI inspection had a 30 percent less loss to wildfire.

I.I.I.: Can you talk about the role emerging technology plays in mitigation and firefighting?

FF: This area is moving remarkably fast, perhaps too fast; we have a situation where technologies are seeking problems to solve rather than a situation where problems are seeking the best technical tools toward solutions.  We need to focus on asking the right questions first.  That said, I believe that big data analysis, real-time modeling at the parcel level, hyperspectral imaging, full-scale ember laboratory experimentation, and converting hazard mitigations to actuarial risk are among the top technological leverage points emerging in the WUI discussion.

I.I.I.:  Any thoughts on the future of fireproof houses?

FF: I’m not sure the “fireproof” house is plausible in the literal sense.  A concrete box would not burn, but it doesn’t have much curb appeal either.  The future of survivable houses in the WUI will exist in the shared space between fiscally and socially acceptable risk, market forces on development cost/sales, and the level of effort communities are willing to put into prevention of, and response to, the wildfires that are a natural part of the western ecosystem.

I.I.I.:  What are some of the public education efforts of the initiative?

FF: The public education will be secondary to where the science leads us.  Whatever we settle on, the public education message must be consistent in content, and recognition, between the fire service and the insurance industry.  The terminal objective of public education is to induce informed decisions that encourage behaviors beneficial to the public good.  If we fail to send a consistent message, public education efforts will be fragmented and lack credibility; we will have failed to serve the public good.