Fire Prevention, Healthy Forests, and Homeowner’s Insurance
We face an increasingly urgent choice: properly maintain our forests and enjoy the economic, environmental, and recreational benefits of our natural beauty or ignore the peril of wildfire and risk our safety, our homes, and our prosperity.
The wildfire threat is growing because our forests and wild lands are severely overgrown and climate change is creating increasingly hazardous fire conditions. As our fires seasons become hotter, drier, and windier, we must swiftly respond with three key activities: reducing the fuel load, investing in community preparedness, and funding and facilitating fire prevention activities at the federal, state, county, and local levels.
As we reduce risk, we must also stabilize the insurance market. We need to face facts: the homeowner’s insurance market is failing. Insurers are leaving the market and/or tripling prices because that is what their analysis dictates. It’s that simple. We must stabilize the market before even more residents face the extreme risk, plummeting home values, and possible financial ruin that many are already facing. The Federal Government exposed us to this risk through decades of poor forest management—now it must help protect us from that risk.
We can also find opportunity in this crisis. Solutions such as biomass energy generation, pricing fuel reduction to incentivize action, and private-public partnerships can speed up prevention efforts while growing our economy. Our Federal Government owns most of the land that needs tending—it’s time to pay the locals to do the work that needs to be done.
Reducing Fuel Load
- Create a market incentive for local entrepreneurs by setting a price that the Federal Government will pay per acre of fuel reduction. The best solutions are local solutions and the Federal Government must promote our best ideas. In just Amador and Calaveras Counties, we can find excellent models to replicate such as the recent Mill Woods fuel-reduction project and biomass company C.H.I.P.S.Incentivized projects will drive profit to local businesses, create local jobs, and preserve our environment—“triple bottom-line” solutions if you’re fancy. This price would increase for forest land located close to population centers, infrastructure, National Parks, and other priorities.
- Streamline environmental review processes for hazardous fuels reduction and removal or mulching of dead and dying trees on federal and private lands. Timber companies have a role to play in these efforts although, To be clear, “streamlining review” does not mean clear-cutting and other destructive logging.
- Selectively log to thin overgrown forests
- Provide funding for forest health projects like meadow restoration that will increase water retention and decrease forest ground surface temperatures
- Encourage cooperation between agencies at the federal, state, county, and municipal level. Fires do not respect our political boundaries so we must coordinate across them
Fire Resiliency & Emergency Preparedness
Preparation saves lives, slows the spread of wildfires, and minimizes destruction. We must enlist everybody in community preparedness from local residents to fire chiefs to heads of government agencies. Hardening homes and communities offers a better chance of survival even in catastrophic fires such as the Camp and Woolsey Fires last year.
- Fund grants to local and regional initiatives, including fire safe councils, fuel reduction and fire break projects near populated areas, and to traditional governmental programs. Any action that publicizes actions communities and individuals can take, including creating fire safe councils, sharing ways to harden your home, and other concrete methods for making our communities more fire resilient.
- Develop rural broadband infrastructure and expand cellular service to underserved parts of our district. Communications are essential in emergencies and too many of our residents are at risk because they cannot receive emergency warnings. We need a federal broadband initiative modeled on the highly successful rural electrification efforts of the 1930s and 40s.
- Ensure proper egress and ingress for all communities. Many of our residents live in areas with one road in and out and we saw how deadly that can be in Paradise. All communities need properly maintained evacuation routes, which has the salutary effect of creating fire breaks that facilitate firefighting and slow the spread of wildfires.
Fund Fire Prevention & Firefighting
California has the best wildfire talent in the world. We need to provide the funding our fire scientists need to lead fire prevention efforts and our fire chiefs need to lead firefighting efforts. This seems like common sense but the Federal Government has fallen short here, too, even refusing to reimburse our firefighters for services rendered during last year’s wildfire season. I know some federal fire chiefs that are making as little as $22/hour, not nearly enough for highly skilled work that takes a long-term toll on the body. The Federal Government must invest in fire safety like the lives of our residents and our firefighters depend on it… because they do.
The community has a role to play as well. Roughly 95% of wildfires are caused by human activity, including poorly maintained energy infrastructure. By funding public awareness campaigns and creating local green energy solutions, we can reduce the likelihood that fires start in the first place.
- Sponsor regular interstate and intrastate fire conferences to spread best practices to agencies across the Western United States.
- Fully reimburse firefighting agencies for their work without exception or delay
- Pay CAL FIRE to manage public lands outside of National Parks. State forests have a much better track record and we should trust state agencies to do the same on federal lands.
- Provide grants to organizations that promote fire safety at all levels.
- Develop local energy infrastructure. Power lines spark hundreds of wildfires each year and reducing the need for energy transmission will reduce wildfire risk. The Sierra Nevada offers abundant green energy sources, including solar and biomass. Investing in small-scale solar plants would enable communities to shut off power lines when wildfire risk is greatest. Biomass generation converts the debris from fuel reduction into electricity. If we also invest in local energy storage, we could shut off power lines during the Summer and Fall while stimulating the local economy.
Stabilize Homeowner's Insurance
Reducing fire risk will take time that homeowners do not have. For most CA-04 residents, their home is their primary asset and we cannot stand idly by as tens of thousands of us either lose our homeowner’s insurance or receive rate increases that double or triple our costs.
Our failing insurance market needs to be addressed immediately to prevent further harm to homeowners and our housing market. The real estate market is dependent on the reliable availability of affordable insurance—most mortgages require insurance, buyers expect it, and home prices are forced downward when insurance increases the total cost of home ownership. There is no wave of risk-loving home buyers coming and there is no magical insurance solution that is going to materialize. We need to listen to the panicked realtors telling us that this crisis is depressing home values across our district and respond accordingly. Politics is often about “kitchen table issues” — this is truly a “way of life” issue.
Federal Disaster Insurance
We know wildfire risk all too well in CA-04, but the risk of natural disasters is increasing across the country and globe, too. Global climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of disasters: the entire Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast now faces ever-stronger hurricanes, Tornado Alley is experiencing bigger and more destructive events, 500-year floods happen yearly, and extreme winter conditions such as Polar Vortexes threaten the North. Wildfires plague not just California, but the entire Western United States.
We must adapt by adopting a national disaster insurance plan. The risk is national so our solution must be national. The people of Jackson are not any more responsible for the Butte Fire than the people of California were responsible for the recent drought. The people of Houston were no more responsible for Hurricane Harvey anymore than the people of Miami are responsible for sea-level rise or the people of Nebraska were responsible for the flooding from this year’s “bomb cyclone.” We need to spread the risk fairly rather than letting individual Americans suffer when catastrophic events occur.
My preferred implementation of national disaster insurance is to protect reinsurers from further risk. Reinsurers insure insurance companies and it is ultimately their losses that are upending the insurance market. By reducing the risk of reinsurers, we can restore the home insurance market in high-risk areas and reduce prices.
Address the Cap on Insurance Loss Deduction
A lesser known impact of the disastrous Tax Cut and Jobs Act—better known as the Tax Scam—is that insurance loss deductions are capped at $10,000 unless a natural disaster is declared. That means that victims of small fires do not receive the tax relief that they received before the Tax Scam. This is not a hypothetical problem. Just up the road from my home in Placerville, the Meyers Fire burned 12 acres and a handful of structures last year. It was not a big fire but it was big enough to upend the lives and finances of several residents. Their pain was compounded when they discovered that the Tax Scam meant that tax relief was not coming. That is unfair and the TCJA must be repealed in full.