As wildfires in western US ravage properties, protection services explode | Weather News


Malibu, California, United States – In 2003, Joe Torres was deployed to Afghanistan with the US Air Force as a firefighter, working on accidents and rescue, but it was a fire raging much closer to his home at the time that was going put his life after service on his current trajectory.

At the time, the Cedar fire in San Diego was the largest in California history, reaching a total of over 190,000 hectares (270,000 acres) and killing 15 people.

“When I started working as a firefighter it was considered a huge fire,” Torres told Al Jazeera. “I was reading about this fire and I was thinking, ‘Wow, California is on fire. “

Fires of this magnitude were indeed considered one-off almost two decades ago, but the passage of time has intensified nature’s fury.

Nine of the 20 largest wildfires on record in California have ravaged the state since last year, according to Cal Fire. Most important – the August-August 2020 complex fire, consumed over 404,000 hectares (one million acres) of land and killed one person.

As the threat of forest fires to life and property has increased, so has the demand for services to protect themselves from them.

Torres saw this boom firsthand. In 2014, he purchased All Risk Shield, a company specializing in assessing the risk of damage from forest fires to homes and businesses, along with advice on how to mitigate them.

Flames lick a tree as the Windy Fire burns in the Trail of 100 Giants Grove in Sequoia National Forest, California last month [Noah Berger/AP Photo]

For years he was the sole employee of the company – and part-time too.

“I felt a little deflated at times because it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” Torres said.

But his business took off last year, when wildfires destroyed millions of acres of land in the western United States, resulting in insured losses of between $ 7 billion and $ 13 billion, according to the management company. RMS risks.

“I recruited our first employee in June 2020 and we now have about 20 employees across California,” Torres said. “These fires are a reality now and I believe the demand for these services will continue to grow.”

All Risk Shield offers two risk assessment packages with prices ranging from $ 1,550 to $ 2,250. Services consist of surveying a property to identify factors such as thick vegetation that can make a home more vulnerable to embers igniting in a forest fire, as well as measures to make homes more fire resistant. .

Torres isn’t the only fire prevention service provider turned firefighter.

Danny Glessner, a retired firefighter who worked on the front line for 35 years leads Wildfire Home Hardening Specialists. “Home curing” includes measures such as installing embers resistant fencing, gutter guards and fire retardants to make a property more resilient.

Glessner travels the western United States inspecting sites and providing consultations to clients ranging from winery owners to home owners,

“For residential properties my services typically range from $ 500 to $ 1,500,” he said, adding that he charges more for larger businesses such as wineries, horse shelters and animal shelters. .

Currently he’s a one-man band, but he expects that to change.

“I see adding more employees in the future,” Glessner told Al Jazeera. “The problem of wildfires will not go away anytime soon and as long as house building and population continues to increase in areas prone to wildfires, there will be plenty of room for us and other similar businesses. “

Firefighters pass a sign wrapped in fire-resistant material while battling the Windy Fire burning in the Trail of 100 Giants Grove of the Sequoia National Forest last month [File: Noah Berger/AP]

Even for seasoned firefighters such as Glessner, who began his career in the early 1980s, the current magnitude of the fire season is staggering.

“The two largest fires in state history have occurred this year and last year,” Glessner said. “When you look at the data, it’s kind of crazy. “

Safer homes and safer conditions for firefighters

A number of factors help explain the dramatic increase in large fires across California. Many of them, like prolonged drought and hot weather, are due to climate change.

The problem has been compounded by years of fire management that has focused on suppressing the flames as soon as they start. This has contributed to the uncontrolled growth of thick vegetation which, combined with the heat and dry weather, acts as an ignition once a fire starts.

Frank Bigelow, deputy chief of Cal Fire, the California firefighting agency, said preventative measures can make a substantial difference to the likelihood of a property surviving a fire.

Cal Fire does not track the number of companies offering services related to property protection against forest fires. But Bigelow said when homeowners take preventative measures, it can create safer conditions for firefighters.

“It’s good for the safety of a property as well as for the safety of the firefighters,” Bigelow told Al Jazeera. “Anytime an organization disseminates information about the importance of creating defensible spaces, it is positive. “

“Defensible space” refers to an area of ​​approximately 30 meters (100 feet) around a property where homeowners can take measures such as removing dead and dry vegetation, keeping gutters and roofs free of. leaves and prune shrubs and trees to maximize vertical and horizontal spacing.

The more space between the vegetation, Bigelow explained, the harder it is for a fire to spread.

Cal Fire has a comprehensive list of steps homeowners can take to prepare their properties (PDF).

Torres said the risk is greatest in areas that straddle the border between residential spaces and wilderness, known as the forest-urban interface.

These areas include the forested areas of Lake Tahoe, the vast plains of Napa and Sonoma, and the barren hills that overlook the sparkling Pacific Ocean in Malibu and the Palisades – all areas where Torres said clients have sought his services.

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