Homeowners at San Marcos Trout Club banded together to pursue a Firewise certification by working on fire safety measures for vegetation and moving into voluntary home hardening. | Credit: Courtesy

Frightening as fire sweeping toward homes might be, what happens afterward has often been equally scary when homeowners find their property insurance is canceled or not renewed. A national program called Firewise that evaluates fire-safe practices among homeowners has taken root in two communities in Santa Barbara County and led to some decreases in homeowner policy prices and a greater certainty of renewal.

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

More than a dozen households at the Trout Club can recall the Paint Fire when it flamed down from San Marcos Pass to Highway 101 in the short span of two hours on a hot July day amid blasting winds in 1990. Fifteen homes out of 40 were lost, said Rocky Siegel, who’s lived at the Trout Club for 50 years and is captain of the San Marcos Volunteer Fire Department. Through the years since the fire, they have kept clearing brush and trimming trees while rebuilding the community. They now spend $14,000-$20,000 annually to clear a roughly 200-foot “greenbelt” in the common areas around the community, keeping the grasses low and leaving larger bushes and trees trimmed up. They expand it a little farther every year, Siegel said.

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

The Trout Club was born when early entrepreneurs saw promise in a year-round stream near the top of the San Marcos Pass. They laid out a homestead of 300 parcels over 100 acres in 1923, Siegel said. Slow sales at the faraway retreat in horse-and-buggy days prompted the developers to dig pools and renew their advertising to feature a “trout club.” Today, 38 homes exist in the steep flanks of the mountains, wrapping along one wall of San Jose Canyon, but the trout are mostly trapped below bridges far downstream.

Siegel and Elizabeth Alves, who moved here from Oregon six months ago, co-chair the Firewise Committee for the small, tightknit community. They said the certification went beyond vegetation management. Education was essential to a three-year plan required by the certification, and they would be working on access to water during an emergency and an evacuation strategy, Alves said. They were already ahead of the game in home evaluations, she said proudly. Their goal had been 12 homes at first, and the County Fire Department checked out 18 homes in the first month, giving advice on how to harden the homes against wind-blown embers and tips on what to do about plantings near structures.

Farther up the coast is Hollister Ranch, 14,000 acres that reach from the Pacific Ocean to the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains. “It’s a huge landscape,” said ranch resident Scott Coffman, “but in the wildlands, many of the communities are clustered, and their backdoor has the potential to have a fire coming at them.” Coffman is a former Carpinteria fire chief, project manager for the Gaviota Coast community wildfire protection plan, and one of the thousand or so people who own a piece of Hollister Ranch.

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Much of the fire risk assessment required by the Firewise application process was already part of the ranch’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, said Coffman, and included information about vulnerabilities to wildfire and how to mitigate them, fuel modeling, a spot fire analysis, and defensibility. Several multi-acre fires have broken out at Hollister in recent years, and evacuation plans have been tested, pinch points and road issues catalogued, and an analysis made of how much time it took to knock on doors or call people in the various canyons, Coffman said.

A project to clear brush 10 feet away from both sides of a driveway at Hollister Ranch. | Courtesy

Their continuing education efforts would look at home hardening, said Coffman, and what he called “zone zero,” or no combustibles near a home for five feet and using gravel or other groundcover that didn’t 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 at the ranch now have Class A fire-resistant roofs, and the ranch association had the equipment and manpower for at least 10 feet of clearing along more than a hundred miles of road.

Coffman is on the board of directors of the Santa Barbara Fire Safe Council, a nonprofit that promotes wildfire safety and whose members include fire agencies, radio clubs, homeowner associations, and neighborhood groups. They snagged a $600,000 grant to develop a regional wildfire mitigation program for an area that stretches from the county line to Point Conception. Anne-Marie Parkinson, a UC Santa Barbara graduate student focusing on fire ecology, is the community liaison for the program and the chief contact for the Firewise program. Five more neighborhood groups are now working with her on a Firewise application, Parkinson said.

Already, 12 insurers were giving discounts to Firewise communities, Coffman said. The Trout Club’s Elizabeth Alves said they included California FAIR Plan, USAA, and Mercury. All the work they’ve put into the program since starting the application process in November has been worth it, Alves added. She said some residents have had decreases in insurance of between $300 and $800 already. Certification by Firewise also gives insurers an assurance that a home and the community surrounding it have actively lowered their fire risk in order to avoid cancellation.

Insurance cancellations in the face of widespread wildfires make little sense to those who’ve been through them. “Take for instance the Thomas Fire or the Paradise Fire,” said Coffman. So much was burned that “you’re not going to have a major fire in those areas for more than 20 years. In this environment that’s now completely safe, why would you cancel people who’ve already been devastated?” he asked.

A group of Cal Fire officials came for the presentation of the 500th Firewise certificate to Hollister Ranch in March, and Scott Coffman (left) shared it with Josh Farberow, ranch manager; Ed De La Rosa, ranch association president; and Mike Parsons, board Firewise liaison.

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