Wildfire hazard inspections add to home seller disclosures

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Natures Image landscapers Richard Aguirre (right) and Alberto Vargas trim invasive plants in August 2019 in Oro Canyon. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent

New state fire safety requirements for housing sales went into effect on July 1.

A California assembly bill passed in 2019 requires property sold in high fire hazard zones to document that the property meets wildfire protection measures.

According to the assembly bill, more than two million houses in California are located within “high” or “very high” fire hazard severity zones. About 85 percent of Laguna Beach is in the “very high” zone according to a recent fire department press release.

“This is a very challenging situation for a city like Laguna Beach, where nearly 90% of the area of the city is classified as very high hazard severity zone, the highest wildfire risk classification, which is similar to the risk classification of Paradise, [Calif.,” said Matt Lawson, chair of the emergency and disaster preparedness committee.

Assembly Bill 38 noted the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires. “As compared with 1986, wildfires in the western United States have occurred nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area and lasting almost five times as long.”

California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot echoed the growing risk of wildfires at an April press conference in Shaver Lake.

“Consider last wildfire season, five of the six largest wildfires in the state’s history were burning at the same time last summer, including the Creek Fire where we are today,” Crowfoot said. “So while we ramp up and continue to build our response capacity through CAL FIRE and their partners, clearly, much more needs to be done on a proactive, upfront basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.”

“Yes, we must deal with the underlying causes of the issues related to climate change, and we are committed,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom at the April press conference. “And, yes, we need to do more on forest management, vegetation management, more prescribed burns, more work to get our forest and fuel breaks and homes hardened, and do defensible spaces and prepare and do our best to prevent it.”

“We see the impacts of wildfire,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. “We’re seeing it as we speak, there’s a vegetation fire in San Clemente not far from here. Going on right now, we have crews there, we have a crew right now at the Tumbleweed fire and Gorman. We participate in these all the time, and our goal here is to try to make our community as safe as possible. And that is the intent of our legislature with a lot of these bills and these laws that get put into place. But what’s difficult is when you have many programs going on and you’re trying to take care of your community, it’s really trying to staff appropriately, and prepare for taking on these new tasks, and that’s what I find a little difficult with the implementation of some of these bills.”

As of July 2, the Laguna Beach Fire Department began taking requests from property owners to inspect the area between a structure and flammable grass, trees, or shrubs that surround it, known as the defensible space. The fire department explained in a June 28 memorandum that by trimming brush away from homes and spacing shrubs and trees at a distance from each other, homeowners can give firefighters enough space to safely work during a wildfire.

The city has hired a new defensible space inspector, Justin Day, to conduct property inspections. There will be a three-month grace period in which the city will be waiving the fee for inspections. Starting in October, the fees will need to be paid prior to scheduling an inspection.

“It’s our intent to have that fee pay for an inspector or a part-time inspector to conduct that, so we can keep up with the volume and not hinder the progress of selling the person’s home and purchasing it,” explained Garcia.

Laguna Beach Realtor Chris Tebbutt is encouraging his clients to get their homes inspected as soon as possible. “It makes it easier for buyers to be willing to buy a property, knowing that that has been taken care of,” Tebbutt said. “Education is the key to this thing so that all homeowners realize this is a requirement, and that’s in addition to the real property report that’s already required.”

“Because Laguna is in such a high fire zone and has had a history of disastrous fires, it is clear that the city and our fire department are absolutely committed to continuous learning from other similar areas such as Paradise,” Tebbutt said.

“In Laguna, we have a very beautiful and unique community,” said Garcia. “Trying to implement fire protection will keep the aesthetic beauty of our communities, and it’s obviously a concern and a challenge. I believe that with our proposed defensible space plan, we’re doing just that.”

The Fire Department is currently following CAL FIRE guidelines while working on creating its own set of guidelines. There will be a public workshop at 6 p.m. on July 14 in the City Council Chambers where the fire department will present on the fire prevention plan.

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