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San Diego backcountry wildfire risk lessening, insurance group concludes

A lone firefighter walks near a property in Barona Mesa Estates just past midnight in the first few hours of the Cedar fire.
(John Gastaldo / San Diego Union Tribune)

An organization that weighs fire risks has determined that San Diego’s backcountry is safer after years of investments, a declaration that may make it possible for property owners in the county’s rural stretches to buy fire insurance for the first time or to pay lower premiums on existing policies.

The improved rating from the Insurance Service Office came after the Board of Supervisors created the San Diego County Fire Authority in 2008 and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve fire protection in 1.5 million acres of the backcountry after major fires in 2003 and 2007.

The county put various fire agencies under one command, and added more career firefighters, staffing, equipment, training and communication systems. The investments cut response times by 30%, the county said.

The fire protection and the improved rating is a big deal for people who live in rural parts of the county, according to Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

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“What this means is not only can they get fire insurance, it lowers the cost of fire insurance in much of this area,” she said.

The $350 million worth of improved rural fire protection is also important for people who live in more populated areas, she added.

“We know that fires that start in the backcountry don’t stay in the backcountry. It affects everyone in the entire region,” Jacob said.

While the rating could make it possible for some property owners to buy their first fire insurance policy and for others to pay less for insurance, it’s not clear how much they could save. The Insurance Service Office does not determine premium prices, said Robert Andrews, vice president of Community Hazard Mitigation at ISO.

The organization uses a standardized rating system across jurisdictions to evaluate fire protection levels, and has evaluated more than 48,000 areas. Using a point system, it considers emergency communications such as 911 systems and dispatchers; firefighting equipment; training, staffing and location of fire stations; and water resources, including fire hydrants and alternative water supplies. The system emphasizes the ability of a fire department to respond to a structure fire, Andrews said.

The county scored a three on a 10-point scale across the backcountry, with a one being the best possible mark. The county said its classification puts it in the top 10% of rated jurisdictions. Previously, parts of the backcountry scored between a 10 and a four.

The rating program “recognizes the efforts of communities to provide fire protection services for citizens and property owners,” Andrews said in an email. “A community’s investment in fire mitigation is a proven and reliable predictor of future fire losses. Therefore, many insurance companies offer reduced premiums in communities with better fire protection as measured under the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule.”

Since May 2014, San Diego County has improved its aerial firefighting capabilities and can now fly firefighting helicopters at night. The fire agency also has thermal-imaging sensors to see fires through smoke and from a distance, as well as a series of new firefighting engines.

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joshua.stewart@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @jptstewart

Stewart writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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