By Debra Moore
As Plumas County residents looked at the map displayed on the wall of the Mineral Building, they saw a sea of red. Most now live in what Cal Fire has deemed “very high hazard severity” zones. While the map is designed to be a tool to help agencies manage fire risk, it’s feared the reality will mean canceled homeowner’s insurance or sharp increases in premiums.
A contingent of Cal Fire personnel conducted a public meeting at the fairgrounds in Quincy from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 17 — the first half was a recorded public hearing, while the remainder of the time was a less rigid question-and-response session, where they fielded such questions as to “why Greenville would still be considered very high severity of risk to burn when there was nothing left to burn?” The response: It has the potential to burn again in the future, given a variety of factors.
The updated map applies to state responsibility areas; it does not address federal lands, nor the areas of local agency response. There is a handy tool to determine the status of your own home. Go to this map and enter your address. (I learned I live in a local responsibility area, while most other addresses I input were in the state’s responsibility area and rated as very high hazard severity.)
How the map came to be
According to the presentation, Fire Hazard Severity Zone (FHSZ) maps are developed using a science-based and field-tested model that assigns a hazard score based on factors that influence fire likelihood and fire behavior. Many factors are considered such as fire history, existing and potential fuel (natural vegetation), predicted flame length, blowing embers, terrain, and typical fire weather for the area. There are three levels of hazard in the State Responsibility Areas: moderate, high, and very high.
Fire Hazard Severity Zone maps evaluate “hazard,” not “risk,” which is where the presenters and the audience seemed to part ways. According to CalFire, “Hazard” is based on the physical conditions that create a likelihood and expected fire behavior over a 30- to 50-year period without considering mitigation measures such as home hardening, recent wildfire, or fuel reduction efforts. “Risk” is the potential damage a fire can do to the area under existing conditions, accounting for any modifications such as fuel reduction projects, defensible space, and ignition resistant building construction.
So, though Greenville is considered a “hazard” due to physical conditions that indicate it could burn (which it did), the “risk” that it could happen is unlikely in the near future because of the existing conditions.
Many in the audience spoke out about the money and efforts that have been put into making local communities more resilient to wild fire, but none of that was considered in the CalFire mapping.
The presenters stuck to a script as they presented the background information as to how the maps were produced and showed a short video from one involved in the production. It can be viewed by clicking here.
Following the presentation, audience members were invited to comment and their remarks were recorded as part of an official public hearing. Those not in attendance can still comment by April 4 by email to [email protected] or by writing to:
Office of the State Fire Marshall
C/O: FHSZ Comments
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
P.O. Box 944246
Sacramento, CA 94244-2460
Public comments made
Those who spoke were asked to limit their remarks to three minutes. The packed audience included four members of the board of supervisors: Dwight Ceresola, Jeff Engel, Greg Hagwood and Tom McGowan. Planning Director Tracy Ferguson and County Administrative Officer Debra Lucero also attended.
Retired firefighter Tony Taylor from the Lake Almanor Basin said it appeared a broad brushstroke was taken to the Lake Almanor Peninsula with no thought given to the geography, nor the work that had been done in the area. “Looks like a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.
That sentiment was expressed by two other Almanor residents, Bob and Barbara MacArthur, who addressed the changed landscape post Dixie Fire, as well as what could be done to lower the “very high” rating that was awarded the area.
Bob Orange, the Indian Valley fire chief, asked Cal Fire to re-evaluate the areas. “The fuel simply is not there,” he said and worried about the millions of dollars in insurance increases that would result.
Andrew Courtright, a former resident of Greenville, also addressed insurance rates. “Mr. Lara said your homeowner insurance is unlikely to be affected,” he said, adding, “Insurance agents say that’s the first map that they look at.” (Mr. Lara is Ricardo Lara, the state insurance commissioner.) He put out a statement that was distributed with other materials during the meeting. It read in part: “Cal Fire’s maps are intended to drive local planning decisions, not insurance decisions.” The release said that insurance companies have been using alternate wildfire risk tools for determining where they will write and renew policies, and how much of a premium to charge a policy holder, not the Fire Hazard Severity Zone maps.
East Quincy resident Kyle Felker discussed the millions of dollars of work that has been done to mitigate fire risk in the county, yet it’s not reflected on the map. “Looks like you brought that bad 2007 data into this map,” he said, referring to the last time this map was updated.
Sally McGowan, who is vice chairman of the Plumas Fire Safe Council, also discussed the millions of dollars and efforts that have gone into protecting Plumas County and called for the map to be re-evaluated.
Taylorsville resident Trina Cunningham voiced a sentiment echoed by others: If all of this State Responsibility Area is considered to be very high hazard, then Cal Fire needs to have more of a presence in the county. (It currently has one small office in Quincy, but no stations.)
Supervisor Greg Hagwood questioned the process. “Decisions are made; maps are done, then out of pure obligatory function you come here to hear us complain,” he said, adding that he bet those who developed the maps had never visited Plumas County. He said it’s a situation that he has seen play out with the Forest Service. Hagwood also said that “insurance rates are going to bankrupt families and cause them to leave.”
Following Hagwood’s remarks, the public hearing portion of the meeting closed since no one else wanted to comment aloud. Cal Fire representatives turned off the recording devices and spoke more freely with the attendees.
Scott Packwood, representing Cal Fire, addressed some of the sentiment regarding their lack of presence in the area. “Many of us would like to have a stronger presence here, maybe up to eight stations or more.” He also asked attendees to see the positive ramifications from the map, which could mean more money coming into the area to fight fire risk.
County Administrative Officer Debra Lucero asked why Cal Fire didn’t work closely with county entities in drawing the maps since they know the area the best. She was told that Cal Fire worked with local Cal Fire personnel to garner their opinions. It was shared that the maps were drawn by Cal Fire because the legislature directed the state fire marshal to do so, but didn’t provide the process for how it was to be accomplished. As a result, it appears to be an internal process.
Lucero said that the resulting maps are a disincentive for people to spend the money to protect their homes if that isn’t reflected in the maps or their insurance rates.
Planning Director Tracy Ferguson asked why there are 2,625 more acres in the State Responsibility Areas than the 2007 map. Packwood explained that efforts were made to clean up designations that didn’t make sense — such as two sides of the same street being in different designations.
Once the process wraps up to complete the state maps, attention will be turned to the local responsibility areas. Public comment on the state map is due by April 4.
Those who want more information about the entire process, can view fact sheets, frequently asked questions and answers, as well as several videos on the process at osfm.fire.ca.gov