John Pryor

John Pryor

Whenever I define a problem, I also try to offer a solution — even for problems as complex as homelessness, active shooters, etc. However, the wildfire problem is a “puzzlement,” to quote Yul Brynner in “The King and I.”

The key is to drill down to any problem’s root cause(s), not merely treat its “surface symptoms.”

Treating surface symptoms of homelessness is essential for humanitarian reasons. However, not also addressing its root causes only perpetuates homelessness. In addition to reactive, yet humane assistance, proactive early intervention is needed for permanent prevention of homelessness.

What’s needed is a stand-alone private-sector collaborative composed of clergy, mental health professionals, teachers and others well positioned to identify early signs of homelessness — and help those in need avoid it altogether – all without any public funding!

This is also true for proactive prevention of active shooters. Such collaborative can observe multiple signals typically telegraphed well in advance of a mass shooting.

Yet when the challenge is prevention of wildfires, proactive early intervention is effective only to a minimal degree. If the root cause is arson, human carelessness, electrical power systems or other “human-related” causes, early intervention works. Lightning strikes and other “natural” causes of wildfires — intensified by high winds and drought — are totally out of our control to prevent.

We need to shift our focus to other risk control measures.

An option for risk elimination is to move one’s home or business to a non-risk area. Easier said than done, of course, yet its consideration is appropriate.

Risk mitigation is where most efforts must be focused. Gov. Gavin Newsom has waived a major environmental law to permit fire prevention work to proceed on a fast-track basis. Accordingly, Cal Fire has planned 35 risk reduction projects to be completed this year. Five have now been completed. Several others are near completion. It’s doubtful that all 35 will be completed by year-end, but it’s a good start.

Some state officials say priorities are “out of whack” and focused more on forestry management than community defense. That sounds more reactive than proactive — another example of only treating surface symptoms. Yet, for many, reactive measures are their only option. They have no control over weather conditions, lightning strikes, public utility equipment malfunctions, etc.

On the other hand, utilities can begin (or extend) construction of their very costly yet much safer underground power distribution system. Decades would be required to complete this expensive project. Beginning with partial installation in most vulnerable areas would seem to make sense.

Homeowners can rebuild with fire-resistive materials such as masonry exterior walls and non-combustible roofs, plus automatic sprinkler systems now required for new home construction.

Data on property losses sustained nationally from wildfires over the past decade are stunning. According to the Insurance Information Institute, losses from wildfires were about $2 billion each year – except for the past two years in which this number escalated dramatically to $20 billion each year. Obviously, California contributed most of these additions, including 2019.

Finally, despite all risk reduction efforts, residual risks must be transferred to an insurance company, assuming your carrier will accept your property’s location. Most will. Each carrier is doing a wonderful job paying not only reconstruction costs but also family expenses incurred while living elsewhere — for hotels and restaurants -- and paying not only promptly but in advance. In addition, certain difficult “proof of loss” requirements have been waived.

Some carriers will refer homeowners to the California Fair Plan for transfer of the fire risk and then write a “wrap-around” policy that includes all other traditional coverages.

Because certain risks — earthquakes, floods and wildfires — cannot be avoided or prevented, preparedness is critical. Don’t fail to take all steps recommended by the Red Cross and others to protect yourself and loved ones.

Then, you’ll be prepared to survive and, in the interim, enjoy a major benefit of effective risk management: a “quiet night’s sleep.”

John Pryor, CPCU, ARM, AAI, AIS, is a risk management consultant for Cal State Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center and a former insurance broker, now retired.