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Are Green-and-Fire-Fuel-Lean Efforts Coming Our Way?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe (KFS)

Kensington’s fire safe council will share researched answers to inquiries from community members here – if you send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures appreciated! 

Here’s a follow-up to previous Firey Questions:

Q #1.  When is the city going to trim our canyons?

Come pose that question to Deputy Chief Marshal Anthon Tosca, Senior Code Compliance Supervisor Marci Garcia plus other representatives from the Parks and Recreation Open Space Division, and also from the Fire Rescue Department, when they join us for a presentation at Kensington Community Church, Wednesday, June 12th at 6:30 PM, in Lander Hall. 

Learn about vegetation thinning on certain city property adjacent to privately-owned lots, the “Ember Resistant Zone,” real estate defensible space inspections and other local wildfire prevention efforts.  Please let us know if you’re coming so we can be sure to have enough chairs.  RSVP at kensingtonfiresafe.org.

Q #2.  Can I find out how fire safe my house really is?

A: Yes!  Check out the FREE home assessment program being offered by the Fire Safe Council of San Diego County.   The assessments include inspecting your house and property to determine vulnerabilities to potential flying embers in the event of a wildfire, as well as other fire dangers.  Staff conducting the 30-to-45-minute, confidential assessment will make recommendations for improvements to harden your home against potential fires and provide other resources.

Two program phases are being rolled out by geographic zones.   The first phase is the home assessments.  For Kensington/Zone 6 the second round will take place August 5th to the 7th.  They already completed about half a dozen in our area during the first March round.

There’s a second “service” phase when chipping and defensible space efforts are available to homeowners in high-risk areas that have physical, economic, or other barriers to doing the work themselves.    These services will be available August 12th to 16th  for our area.  For more details, go to https://firesafesdcounty.org/hap/

This program is made possible by funding from CAL FIRE, through the California Fire Safe Council’s Defensible Space Assistance Grant Program.

Q#3: When is the next KFS Dumpathon?

A:  Well, not this Spring as originally planned. We’ve been told that we should not hold this fuel-thinning support during the March through August gnatcatcher breeding season. We started holding late Spring events several years ago, based on resident’s feedback on the best time for trimming excess brush, after learning of a County and State agreement to allow fire fuel reduction efforts during this season.  However, we were recently informed that the City’s Municipal Code restricting this activity overrides this agreement.  So, our Spring Dumpathon was canceled.

Brush management crews at work

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Is the California “FAIR Plan” Fair?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe (KFS)

Kensington’s fire safe council will share researched answers to inquiries from community members in this column.  Send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures appreciated! 

Q:  Over a recent delicious lunch at Clem’s Station on Monroe,  we talked with Tony – manager, bartender, waiter, and part of the owing family – about problems residents are having getting, keeping, or affording homeowner insurance. He asked how the California FAIR Plan worked.

A:  Good timing, Tony.  We recently sat in on a conference call that gave us some insights into the  “Fair Access to Insurance Requirements” program, aka the California FAIR Plan (CFP).

First of all, it’s not a government entity, as a lot of folks think.  Although established by a California statue in 1968, CFP is run by a consortium of California property and casualty insurers. They’re required to participate if they want to do business here, and they share in the plan’s overhead, profits and most significantly – losses, in direct proportion to their market share in our state. (1)  

So that means the bigger their sales, the greater their CFP plan liabilities, on top of whatever they’re paying out for their own insured. Is it any wonder you may find it hard to get a policy with the biggest insurers like State Farm, The Hartford and USAA?

FAIR plans, which exist in 26 states, weren’t intended for long term coverage, but rather as a temporary safety net until traditional insurance could be secured. In other words, it’s the insurance of last resort when no other insurer will take you on. But with our fire losses, CFP covers over 320,000 policies – about 3% of Californians.  (By contrast, Washington State’s CFP Plan only covers about 130 policies.) (2)

CFP doesn’t take all comers. Brokers must answer questions about why they’re placing the risk with it, and confirm they’ve been declined by other carriers. As a result, CFP’s growing share of high-risk properties results in more expense for insurers and higher premiums for the insured..(3)

But…there are other problems.  According to a June article in the San Francisco Standard, critics say the CFP is underfunded and mismanaged.  Perhaps not surprising since, as the article says, “The very companies that refuse to insure properties in high-risk areas are still insuring them through the “back door” of CFP, and it doesn’t always pay out when it ought to.’

The article goes on to cite a Department of Insurance four-year study that found numerous issues, including that the CFP on occasion failed to provide standard fire insurance coverage, particularly regarding smoke damage claims. .(4)

Kensington Fire Safe’s insurance advisor, Scott Caraveo, says the process can be slow. “As homeowners buy in areas with higher fire risk, they’re ending up with five or more insurance quotes from several brokers, which may all be from the CFP. So now CFP has five different applications from five different brokers, all for the same address, creating a gigantic backlog.  The three or four days it used to take for a CFP quote to be returned have become three weeks or more.”

Scott Caraveo, Insurance Advisor to Kensington Fire Safe

Higher Prices & Less Coverage

Scott pointed out there was a 15 percent increase this past December, but it’s not spread evenly. According to a November ABC report, “Some people in the most wildfire-prone, high-risk areas could see their rates as much as double.”  And CFP covers less than traditional insurance plans.(5)   Of course, some of our neighbors have already seen their homeowner insurance double if it’s renewed at all.

So, that’s the bad CFP news.  The good news is we at least have a backup   insurance option.  If interested, your insurance broker can help with the plan’s application process, which requires information on your home’s replacement costs and date-stamped photos.  You’re supposed to get a quote that’s good for 30 days.

Another option is an excess and surplus (E&S) carrier specializing in insuring high-risk properties.  These policies are not backed by the California Insurance Guarantee Association, although they likely have other fail safes, such as reinsurance. Check with your broker or the Surplus Line Association of California website for more information.

Meanwhile, make your home more attractive to insurers by hardening it against fire embers. A good time to trim excess green fuel and dump it for free is during the KFS Spring Dumpathon,  Thursday, April 25 to Monday, May 6th.  Check for location announcements at kensingtonfiresafe.org and on Nextdoor. And please, no non-greens. We can be fined for that!

Watch for announcements about our April 25th to May, 6th Dumpathon!

By the Fire Safe Way… we’re hoping to arrange two presentations this Spring: 

  • Efforts to Keep Our Canyons Safe by representatives from San Diego Open Space Brush Management and the San Diego Fire Department.
  • Assessing Fire Risk by representatives from Verisk on how they report on risk for insurance companies. 
  • Watch for date announcements on Nextdoor and KFS’s Facebook page.  To receive this info directly, send your email address to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org

Notes:

  1. https://www.cfpnet.com/about-fair-plan/#:~:text=The%20California%20FAIR%20Plan%20was,from%20a%20traditional%20insurance%20carrier.
  2. https://content.naic.org/cipr-topics/fair-access-insurance-requirements-fair-plans#:~:text=The%20states%20that%20have%20their,similar%20purpose%20to%20FAIR%20plans.
  3. https://sfstandard.com/2023/10/19/california-insurance-crisis-CFP-plan-1000-applications-rate-increase/
  4. https://sfstandard.com/2023/06/05/as-insurers-retreat-california-homeowners-may-need-the-CFP-plan-so-what-is-it/
  5. https://www.cfpnet.com/
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Are qualified home-hardening inspectors a rare breed?

By Judy Beust Harrington, Co-Chair, Kensington Fire Safe

Kensington’s fire safe council will share our researched answers to inquiries from community members here. Please send your fire-related questions to info@kensingtonfiresafe.org.  Pictures really appreciated too!

Q: “Are there qualified professionals who can inspect my home and tell me how to make it more firesafe?”  …asks Kensington canyon resident, Michael Kimmel.

And this month’s KFS Good Neighbor Award goes to Michael – hardening even a single home can help protect others nearby as well! And your award is a definite maybe answer to your question. Here’s some options we found:

Certified Inspectors?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a “Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Training and Certification,”  but there’s no directory of their certified inspectors, although they told us they expect to have one online soon. (https://www.nfpa.org/Training-and-Events/Certification/Certification/Certified-Wildfire-Mitigation-Specialist)

But we found two possibilities for our area:

  • Wildfire Home Hardening Specialists/Danny Glessner  are NFPA CWMS certified. Danny inspected one Kensington residence – the owner said she was very pleased with his work.   (760-822-4822, homehardening@gmail.com)
  • The Real Estate Inspection Company, said their certification is in process. They charge $399 for an inspection but will provide our readers with a $100 discount if you use code HFH100. (760 203-9682,  www.SDinspect.com)

Until California has its own certification (expected 2025), San Diego Fire Rescue Dept. recommends using a state-licensed contractor well-versed in Chapter 7A of the building code. (osfm.fire.ca.gov/media/ljhll2h3/2023-sfm-wui-listed-products-handbook-3-29-2023.pdf)

Other Possibilities

  1. San Diego Fire Rescue Department conducts door-to-door inspection of homes in  “Very High Hazard Severity Zones,” which includes most of Kensington.  However, with current staffing, it takes approximately 4.5 years to cover the entire city.
    • If you believe there’s a fire hazard within 100 feet of your home, you can contact the Fire Hazard Advisor. The Brush Clerk will send an advisor to conduct a site assessment.  Of course, if they find code violations, you may be issued a citation that can result in fines if you don’t correct the problem. (619-533-4444, https://sandiego.gov/fire/services/complaintinspections.)
    • Also, owners selling a home in one of these zones must arrange for a “Defensible Space Assessment” as part of the real estate disclosure requirements, which may differ from other inspection requirements. (https://www.sandiego.gov/fire/services/ab38)
  2. Insurers often have trained agents to do home inspections, particularly if they are offering discounts for significant hardening efforts, e.g., new roofs, wiring updates, central fire alarm systems, etc. Check out: (insurance.ca.gov/01-consumers/105-type/95-guides/03-res/Insurers-Currently-Offering-Discounts.cfm)
  3. Non-profits:
    1. For folks with limited ability to harden their home because of physical, economic, or other barriers (1) the Defensible Space Assistance Program has trained inspectors and  potential financial assistance. (firesafesdcounty.org/dsap/), and (2) the National Volunteer Fire Council trains Fire Corp programvolunteers to conduct home safety checks. (nvfc.org/programs/firecorps/)
    2. The American Red Cross and partners offer free wildfire preparedness visits where they assess and give tips on the first five feet of defensible space. They also provide free smoke, bed-shaker and strobe alarms. No qualifications or restrictions. (619-354-9609, www.SoundTheAlarm.org\SoCal ).
  4. DIY:  Several on-line tools for a do-it-yourself assessment come up on a “home hardening” search, for example:
    1. Wildfire Prepared Home” – this insurance industry’s designation might get you an insurance premium discount. Their online initial questionnaire is quite comprehensive, but beyond that there’s a fee. (wildfireprepared.org/wildfire-prepared-home-base-assessment/)
    1. Two other good info sources: CalFire’s Ready for Wildfire.   (readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/get-ready/hardening-your-home/), and the  “Safer from Wildfires” program: (www.insurance.ca.gov/01-consumers/200-wrr/Safer-from-Wildfires.cfm)

Two side notes:

  1. Fire Chief Anthony Tosca, who thankfully helped with this info, also highly recommends residents consider establishing a local fire safe council – funding is available to help create a safer community.  Heh, Normal Heights, Talmadge, City Heights– how about it?
  2. James McBroom, a NFPA-certified, Alpine Fire Marshall, says it’s time to remove ALL combustible materials from the first five feet around our home exterior. That means no plants, vegetation, wood fencing, mulch, or bark.  Replace with rocks, stone, pavers, or just bare mineral soil. Plants in non-combustible pots under 18″ high, might be OK but NOT in front of a window. 

Hardening against a fire can be a few simple steps, like small-gauge hardwire on your vents — or more involved and potentially expensive efforts.  On the other hand, that could be a piece of cake compared to the cost of replacing your home after a fire. Even if you’re insured, deductibles and gaps in coverage can be significant.  Just ask one of the 75 Normal Heights residents who lost their home to the terrible fire in 1985.

Wonder how many of them, like many of us, thought “it can’t happen here!” As Gary Weber, a resident who lived through it told me, “It truly was a firestorm, and I’m not sure that anything could have stopped it once the winds were amplified as they entered the canyons.” 

www.sandiego.gov/fire/about/majorfires/1985normalheights

Thin, Trim and Dump

Oh, and an easy hardening opportunity – thin and trim during Kensington Fire Safe’s Fall Dumpathon, September 28 to October 9th to take advantage of our free dumpsters!  Locations will be announced on Nextdoor, KFS Facebook page, and our website (kensingtonfiresafe.org/dumpathon/)! Great time to dump leggy, excess or dead greenery before it becomes potential fire fuel!

Thank you Jim Baross for this 1985 Normal Heights fire picture, taken from Jim’s driveway in the 3300 block of North Mountain View. Jim’s house was unharmed except for the door the firefighters broke down, but 75 other neighbors completely lost their home.

Photo curtesy of Richard Miller, a Normal Heights resident since 1976.

A Normal Heights home during the ’85 wildfire.

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Board of Directors

Click here to meet Kensington Fire Safe’s board of directors.