Defensible space rules changing |

Defensible space rules changing

Column by Mike Terwilliger, Truckee Fire Chief

Most people are probably unaware that the insurance industry and the fire service have been linked at the hip since the beginning of organized fire protection. The Fire Department of New York was involved directly with insurance providers before the 1800’s and we are still linked with them today. The concern of course is the protection of life and the conservation of property and in the world of insurance that translates to the bottom line: Money.

Wildfires have taken center stage again as fire season visits the western United States this summer. One subtle change is a renewed interest by insurance companies concerning the significant dollar losses experienced the last few years as wildfires are burning literally thousands of homes. Nature has a tendency to destroy manmade improvements on a regular basis using tools such as tornadoes, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.

Through trial and error we have developed building standards and included natural disasters in our regional planning to minimize the effect of these natural disasters on mankind. We still read about awful tornadoes and the like on a regular basis but the loss of life and property is being minimized every year, with our friend wildfire as the exception. Wildfire is now the focus of one major insurance provider.

State Farm Insurance has started a program to review all policies for people that own homes in potentially high fire prone areas primarily in the western United States. This will basically be a wildfire reinspection program to inspect homes in these wildfire prone areas to determine if the homeowners have done what is expected to protect the property should a wildfire occur. The important question that naturally follows is how State Farm will handle non-compliance. They say that working with these customers in the highest hazard wildfire areas over a period of 18-24 months will encourage them to take the appropriate action. However, if some refuse to do any work, they will be looking at other options including non-renewal.

The fire service has been sending a message loud and clear from day one concerning defensible space around homes. We use public education programs, visit schools, develop fuel modification programs and go door to door.

The message is this: It is not the job of the fire service to ensure your home is safe from a wildfire. It is your job and only yours.

We can offer advice and tips. We can offer alternatives to help get rid of fuel like our current chipping program and the various fuel pick-ups coordinated with homeowner groups and the Fire Safe Council. We can enforce our ordinances, write tickets and spend large sums of money and time in court but it changes nothing. It won’t work until the homeowner decides they want to accept the responsibility they inherited when they bought a home in a rural area. Hence the reason I support the insurance industry’s new policy. Perhaps a few more homes will become compliant and will not burn when the next fire hits.

One of the excuses I hear is this: If the woods were better maintained then we would not have these big fires. I tend to agree that the forests of the western States are burning, but there are many factors causing that to happen and the fires themselves will ultimately be part of the cure. What is not understood is the homes being burned in these fires can withstand these fire events if proper work is done around the homes.

There needs to be some simple maintenance in what we refer to as the “home ignition zone.” You hear about the homes that burned but you don’t hear about the ones that don’t. There have been many studies done on the ones that survived. It is very clear that the primary contributor to home survivability during extreme fires was the homeowner and what they had done to prepare long before the fire arrived. Of course lost in all this is risk and by that I mean risk to firefighters. I don’t feel homeowners have the right to create an environment around their property that is a risk to the well being of fire fighters involved in suppression. I am not alone in that feeling and many homes are passed up by firefighters during wildfires simply because they are to dangerous to defend.

State Farm Insurance has taken a position that is probably unpopular. I for one will be watching closely to see if the program is successful. I hope it is for two reasons. I would be very content if I never went to another wildfire that burned down a home. Second, it might minimize the risk to my firefighters down the road on a fire yet to happen. Either way it is a win for all. If this article in any way raises questions in your mind, call us at 582-7850. We would love to hear from you.

Mike Terwilliger is Fire Chief of the Truckee Fire Protection district. He can be reached via e-mail at

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