The wildfire that burned our home and 65 others was not a Federally declared fire. Our State did not make the request. The U.S. Stafford Act allows states to request support from the Federal government when “the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the local governments and that supplemental federal assistance is necessary.” This assistance can be in the form of immediate support to protect lives and property (Emergency Declarations) or a “Major Declaration” which supports the immediate and medium- to long-term recovery of individuals and communities. These declarations provide assistance to individuals and to state and local governments and non-profit organizations who are involved in recovery work.
We discovered that the lack of declaration had multiple negative effects on us in our recovery. No federal programs for disaster survivors were available to us. While we did not need most of the federal assistance, we were not able to access income tax assistance which allows disaster survivors to adjust the tax payment time schedule and in some cases declare losses on their income tax. This would have made a difference to our recovery.
The most crushing thing from not being a listed fire was that we were un-insurable for our replacement house. We were denied by multiple insurance companies and the few who were willing to provide coverage for us charged premiums thousands of dollars higher because we were individually responsible for a “total loss claim.” Had we been a “listed” disaster (e.g. Federally recognized) the some companies who denied us might have been willing to provide coverage. We know higher premium would have not been levied against us. Listed disasters are not caused by the individual while unlisted total loss claims are technically the fault of the individual claimant.
Finding out that I was uninsurable because of something that also happened to 65 other houses made me upset. I was crushed by victim blaming yet again. This was more insidious for me since getting insurance for the new house was a technical detail on my to-do list I was managing in order to rebuild our house. It was effectively like coordinating with the County for our septic tank.
Except that it was not. It was on my check list of thing to sort out but being told that we were not “listed” put me back in the ashes. I was certain I did not burn my home but I also was hurt because the insurance people I talked to had organizational policy that defacto said I did. I wanted them to know that my house that burned had a metal roof. It was surrounded on all but one portion of the yard by more than adequate defensible space. We had reduced the fuel load in all of the trees around us. Our plants close to the house were “non flammable.” We had a 24-7 fire monitoring service. There was a volunteer fire department one house down from us. The week of the fire I had even been wetting down areas around our house trying to reduce fire risks.
So there we sat there, over a year after the fire, trying to take in the fact that we were un-insurable for our replacement house. Our fire was not” listed” as a federal disaster. Thus, we were “officially” responsible for our old house burning to the ground. How did I burn my house? What did I do that made my house one of the 66 that burned? How was I individually responsible?
The answer is that I was not.
My house did not burn because I fell asleep with a burning cigarette. It did not burn because I was using candles and forgot. It did not burn because I was irresponsible with my wiring. It burned because there was a raging fire that started two drought-ridden ridges away and the wind blew up-slope and the native vegetation on federal and private land around us was so dry it snapped when you touched it.
My house burned because it was in the path of the fire.
Fire is unpredictable, particularly when it is aloft. Our fire was aloft 60 to 80 feet high with smoke above that. The cinders fell like the droplets of fire from a child’s sparkler. The heat was so intense houses exploded before the fire got there. Our house exploded and the fire passed on either side of it burning everything in its path when it rejoined. The fire split below us when it encountered a large construction disturbed area where multiple big trucks had driven in and out. The ground, about an acre, was bare, rutted and uphill. The fire split there, burned our neighbors above and below, left the house between then, reconverted on our house leaving all the vegetation in front standing and everything beside and beyond ruins.
Our new house has a metal roof. It has a larger defensible space around it than our old house did. The driveway is clearly marked and large enough for a fire truck to turn around at the top. Our well has the capacity to pump a meaningful amount of water for firefighting. All of the boards on our decks are fire treated. We have fire rated fiberboard and fire doors. We have an alarm system that is monitored 24 hours a day.
Our neighborhood has a permanent fire aware committee that coordinates with local, state and federal authorities on methods to reduce fire risks. We have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan and established evacuation routes. Each house number is clearly visible from either direction on the road. We are voluntarily a “Firewise” Community which is a program sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association cosponsored with the USDA Forest Service, the US Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters.
If a wildfire comes to our neighborhood it can burn our house.
With the U.S.’s rapid population growth people must go somewhere. We can increase the density of our cities or expand them outward. In the United States we have done both. Most of us understand that increasing populations strain organizational infrastructure. We know it affects the built environment. It affects our air and our water. It also affects fire.
We must live with that responsibility and with the moral and ethical knowledge of what it means to be one of the families that chose to expand outward rather than increase urban density.