California Wildfires Can Be Prevented With Firebreaks / by Norris McDonald



By Norris McDonald

The 2017 wildfire season in Northern California has led me to address the unwillingness of the state to adequately address wildfire prevention.  The Center thoroughly researched this issue in 2011 and found that wildfire prevention falls between the cracks, particularly in comparison to the Wildfire Industrial Complex (WIC), which includes the insurance companies, state agencies and fire departments.  The primary attention is placed on fighting fires and not on preventing them.  The Center Wildfire Mitigation Program is designed to address uncontrollable wildfires.  We were promoting a wood chip to energy program that would utilize the cut wood in wildfire areas to produce electricity.  In meeting with the California Department of Insurance, we realized that there was no practical way to include wildfire prevention in the rate approval process.

Our primary solution to wildfires is the firebreak.  Strategically placed firebreaks could prevent the vast majority of wildfires.  We discovered that there is no institutional structure or combination of institutional structures that can approve a firebreak prevention program.

The California Department of Insurance regulates insurance rates through its Rate Regulation Branch.   The Rate Regulation Branch (RRB) determines whether rates charged to consumers in California are fair (not excessive, inadequate or unfairly discriminatory).  RRB analyzes filings submitted by property and casualty insurers and other insurance organizations under California's prior approval statutes for most property and casualty lines of business. In addition, the RRB analyzes filings submitted by property and casualty insurers and other insurance organizations under California's file and use statutes for a limited number of property and casualty lines of business.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no incentive for insurance companies to engage in wildfire prevention,.  Where is the constituency or client base requesting or willing to pay for such a service.  It does not exist.  In other words there is no profit in wildfire prevention.  And this is tragic considering that this year's wildfire season took an number of lives and property, it is amazing that there is little to no efforts being given to preventing these disasters.

Approximate 40 lives have been lost, hundreds of people are still listed as missing, hundreds of thousand of acres have been scorched, and thousands of homes and businesses have been lost.  One would think that there would be more serious consideration given to preventing these disasters than sitting back and preparing to go through it all over again.  State agencies address fire prevention efforts but the firebreak solution does not appear to be seriously considered.


The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is dedicated to the fire protection and stewardship of over 31 million acres of California's privately-owned wildlands. In addition, the Department provides varied emergency services in 36 of the State's 58 counties via contracts with local governments.  The Department's firefighters, fire engines, and aircraft respond to an average of more than 5,600 wildland fires each year. Those fires burn more than 172,000 acres annually.

As part of the CAL FIRE team since 1995, the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) supports the CAL FIRE mission to protect life and property through fire prevention engineering programs, law and code enforcement and education. The OSFM provides for fire prevention by enforcing fire-related laws in state-owned or operated buildings, investigating arson fires in California, licensing those who inspect and service fire protection systems, approving fireworks as safe and sane for use in California, regulating the use of chemical flame retardants, evaluating building materials against fire safety standards, regulating hazardous liquid pipelines, and tracking incident statistics for local and state government emergency response agencies.  The OSFM, State Fire Training, and CAL FIRE Academy programs provide training education and certification programs for the California Fire Service. 

We understand that hundreds of miles of one mile wide firebreaks is well beyond the powers of any one or even multiple agencies to regulate,  so the state legislature needs to design and pass legislation to design a wildfire firebreak program that can prevent these devastating wildfires.