Two Santa Barbara County communities are turning brushcutting into insurance savings


As frightening as the fire that spreads towards homes can be, what happens next has often been equally frightening when homeowners find out their homeowners insurance is canceled or not renewed. A national program called fire sage which assesses homeowners’ fire safety practices has taken root in two Santa Barbara County communities and led to lower prices for homeowners’ insurance policies.

The newest member of Firewise is Hollister Ranch, which only received its certification — the program’s 500th — last month from the National Fire Protection Association. It is the second after the San Marcos Trout Club, which was certified in February 2022. Both are removed from a city’s urban networks and have volunteer fire departments, and both communities have worked on the prevention of fire and safety for years before applying for Firewise.

More than a dozen Trout Club households can remember the Paint Fire as it spread from San Marcos Pass to Highway 101 in the space of two hours on a hot July day amid windy violence in 1990. Fifteen out of 40 houses were lost. , said Rocky Siegel, who has lived at the Trout Club for 50 years and is a captain of the San Marcos Volunteer Fire Department. Over the years since the fire, they have continued to clear brush and trim trees while rebuilding the community. They now spend between $14,000 and $20,000 a year to clear an approximately 200-foot “green belt” in common areas around the community, keeping grass low and leaving large bushes and trees cut down. They expand it a little more every year, Siegel said.

Rocky Siegl and Elizabeth Alves co-chair the San Marcos Trout Club Firewise Committee. | Credit: Courtesy

The Trout Club was born when early entrepreneurs saw the promise of a year-round stream near the top of San Marcos Pass. They laid out a 300-plot, 100-acre farm in 1923, Siegel said. Slow sales in the distant retirement in the days of horses and buggies prompted developers to dig pools and renew their advertising to feature a “trout club”. Today, 38 houses exist on the steep mountainsides, wrapping around a wall of the San Jose Canyon, but the trout are mostly trapped under bridges far downstream.

Siegel and Elizabeth Alves, who moved here from Oregon six months ago, co-chair the Firewise committee for the small, tight-knit community. They said certification went beyond vegetation management. Education was essential for a three-year plan required by certification, and they would work on emergency water access and an evacuation strategy, Alves said. They were already ahead of the game in home ratings, she said proudly. Their goal was 12 homes at first, and the county fire department checked 18 homes in the first month, giving advice on how to harden homes against windblown embers and advice on what to do. need to be done about planting near structures.

Further up the coast is Hollister Ranch, 14,000 acres that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains. “It’s a huge landscape,” said Scott Coffman, a resident of the ranch, “but in the wilderness, many communities are clustered together and their backdoor has the potential to cause a fire.” Coffman is a former Carpinteria Fire Chief, project manager for the Gaviota Coast Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and one of thousands of people who own a piece of Hollister Ranch.

Much of the fire risk assessment required by the Firewise application process was already part of the ranch’s community wildfire protection plan, Coffman said, and included information about wildfire vulnerabilities. and how to mitigate them, fuel modeling, spot fire analysis, and defense. Several acre-wide fires have broken out in Hollister in recent years, and evacuation plans have been tested, pinch points and road issues listed, and analysis done on how long it took to strike at the gates or calling people in the various canyons, Coffman says.

Their continuing education efforts would focus on home hardening, Coffman said, and what he called the “zero zone,” or no fuel near a five-foot house and the use of gravel or other ground covers that did not burn instead. “You have to think like an ember,” Coffman said, and look at any flat plane where an ember could sit and smolder. Most homes on the ranch now have Class A fire-rated roofs, and the ranch association had the equipment and labor for at least 10 feet of clearing along more than a hundred miles. of road.

Coffman is a board member of the Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes wildfire safety and whose members include fire departments, radio clubs, homeowners associations and neighborhood groups. They won a $600,000 grant to develop a regional forest fire mitigation program for an area that extends from the county line to Point Conception. Anne-Marie Parkinson, a graduate student from UC Santa Barbara specializing in fire ecology, is the community liaison for the program and the primary resource person for the Firewise program. Five other neighborhood groups are now working with her on a Firewise app, Parkinson said.

Already, 12 insurers, including California FAIR Plan, USAA and Mercury, were giving discounts to Firewise communities, Coffman said. For Trout Club’s Elizabeth Alves, all the work they’ve put into the program since the application process began in November has been worth it. She said some residents have already had insurance cuts ranging from $300 to $800.

Insurance cancellations in the face of widespread wildfires mean little to those who have lived through them. “Take the Thomas Fire or the Paradise Fire, for example,” Coffman said. So much has been burned that “you’re not going to have a major fire in these areas for over 20 years. In this now totally secure environment, why would you cancel people who are already devastated? ” He asked.

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