California provides access to money for building resilient neighborhoods

James Gore, Special to CALmatters

Already this month, a 2,200-acre fire scorched Yolo County, hot temperatures and high winds necessitated red flag warnings and power shut-downs, and–so early in this new fire season–we are reminded more is on the way.

I experienced the devastation of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires in California’s increasingly dry climate and saw friends and neighbors suffer unthinkable loss. This is my motivation to change outcomes of these horrific events by lessening our vulnerability and promoting readiness and resiliency.

While it is easy enough to say “get ready,” how many of us know what that really means? 

Getting educated about how to build more fire-resistant homes and buildings is an essential step to strengthen our triple bottom line of the economy, the environment and the social fabric of our neighborhoods. 

As a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and national chair of the Resilient Counties Advisory Board for the National Association of Counties, my work and the work of many others focuses on making disaster preparedness accessible to more people.

The Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown took a critical step to meet this goal when they passed and signed into law the Wildfire Safety Finance Act, effective Jan. 1. 

The new law increased access for Californians to utilize low-interest financing for fire preparedness if they are deemed to be in a very high fire hazard zone. 

Once state lawmakers address some implementation issues regarding the law this year, more California homeowners will be able to upgrade their properties through something called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or P.A.C.E., financing to make sure their homes are equipped with fire-resistant designs and materials.

In 2017, wildfires cost California nearly $12 billion and dozens of lives. Since then, it has only gotten worse, with 2018 being the deadliest and most destructive year on record.  

Sadly, the destructive blazes show no sign of slowing. The average area burned is expected to increase by 77% by the end of the century, according to a recent California Climate Change Assessment. During the 2017 wildfires in Santa Rosa, 97% of the homes burned were built before homes included fire-resistant construction.

Increasing accessibility to affordable financing tools as provided by the new law puts low-interest financing within reach of those who want to be ready. P.A.C.E. financing is one of the few programs homeowners can utilize to make wildfire safety improvements to their properties through long-term, fixed-cost financing options without turning to unsecured home improvement financing, like costly credit cards and bank loans.

The lessons we keep learning in wildfire response, recovery and resiliency must be heeded. Lawmakers can lead the way by making sure the Wildfire Safety Act gives access to resiliency to all citizens who see and fear the growing wildfire threat.

James Gore is a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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