We are living in a major historical event- climate change. And the best mechanism we have to combat this is community. By working together, we can overcome unprecedented events. Learn how your community can reduce the cost of preventive and mitigation measures while strengthening resiliency. In this episode, Jennifer interviews Wendy Nystrom, an expert on environmental and pollution risk management. One challenge faced by fire survivors is the lack of proper insurance. It is a lengthy and tricky process that sometimes causes more loss rather than support. Jennifer and Wendy address the pressing issue we face on insurance coverage, policies, fraud, climate change, giving more value to indigenous practices, and making the best use of the technology we have at hand. Wildfires will be a part of our life for the years ahead, but we can learn to live with them and craft sustainable strategies as a community. Beware of “predators”, and save your community from cost, trauma, and grief. We all have a role and a responsibility in this. If you’re wondering where to best start, tune in and find your match with this new “tinder” for fuel mitigation.
“We have much worse wildfires due to everything that climate change has caused. We need to have a forward-thinking conversation, not a reactionary one.” –Wendy Nystrom
- 02:19: Insurance, Wildfires, and Loses
- 11:20: A Time For Action
- 17:53: A Tinder for Fuel Mitigation
- 21:10: Down the Cost Up the Resiliency
- 29:32: Save Your Community from Cost, Grief, and Trauma
- 38:08: Beware of “Predators”
- 45:11: Unprecedented Over Unprecedented Events
- 50:54: Think Beyond
06:44: “The problem is a lot of money going out, not a whole lot of money coming in, and it’s not sustainable. If you’re not bringing in a premium to keep your company afloat, you have to leave the marketplace.” –Wendy Nystrom
07:20: “One of the things that need to be done is discussing prevention measures. It’s one thing to handle a claim, cover insurance, and rebuild after the fire. It’s another thing to try to stop it before it starts.” –Wendy Nystrom
10:15: “We have to think back to what worked and stop thinking we’re going to do it better. We didn’t.” –Wendy Nystrom
10:27: “We always advocate for centralizing indigenous voices and practices as opposed to inviting them to the table.” -Jennifer Thompson
11:03: “Insurance companies too can do things to embrace the idea that we can live alongside wildfire if we change how we build and rebuild more resilient, and we manage the forest in a way that’s ecologically sound and restores balance.” -Jennifer Thompson
12:06: “We have much worse wildfires due to everything that climate change has caused. We need to have a forward-thinking conversation, not a reactionary one.” –Wendy Nystrom
12:18: “There’s plenty of information out there, we all have wonderful ideas, we need to take action. We’re in the time of action right now.” –Wendy Nystrom
16:47: “A lot of the technology that we need to deal with this issue already exists, and we just haven’t applied it.” -Jennifer Thompson
27:52: “Doing individual home by individual home for insurance purposes can’t work. Wildfires don’t pick and choose homes. So if you have full coverage, or you made your house really resilient, you might be spared. But if your entire neighborhood isn’t doing the same, it’s probably for not. Insurance needs to be on a community-wide basis.” –Wendy Nystrom
31:46: “The detection of wildfire early can be a huge cost-saving mechanism, grief-saving mechanism, trauma-saving mechanism.” -Jennifer Thompson
33:33: “It needs an expert who knows what they’re doing, not the amateurs who think they’re helping but actually fanning some flames.” –Wendy Nystrom
41:12: “Your chances of being defrauded go down precipitously if you know your rights, and if you know what’s available to you.” -Jennifer Thompson
52:05: “There are other solutions, unless we continue to be very open to them, we’re never going to get to the other side.” -Jennifer Thompson
Meet Wendy Nystrom:
Born in Pasadena, raised in the midwest, and educated on the east coast, Wendy has a Master’s degree in Geology/Earth Sciences/Geochemistry and has worked in the environmental industry for 20 years. She hosts the Environmental Social Justice webcast where every Wednesday at 9am PT / 12pm ET she hosts a live webcast on Facebook and YouTube to discuss current topics as they relate to The Environment, Equality and Social Justice. The webcast aims to bring everyday information to the audience on how they can impact the globe with informed decisions upon environmental conservation and community-based responses. She currently is associated with Basher LLC, related to the news publication, The Guardian, for her work with the Environmental Social Justice production based out of Beverly Hills, California. She advocates and informs the public with her diverse skill set and experience on topics of environmental education, climate news, insurance and preventative measures. She collaborates and partners with many groups to assist with other climate projects around the country.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, I’m the CEO of After The Fire. On today’s episode, I’m happy to welcome Wendy Nystrom, a renowned environmental and pollution risk management expert. Wendy has worked in the environmental industry for over 20 years and hosts Environmental Social Justice, a new series launched by The Guardian on environmentalism and justice through the lens of social, economic and historical perspectives. When these perspectives are from not only the media side, but also a scientific and social side. And that will be invaluable for our discussion today on disaster. You can find out more about Wendy’s group at www.environmentalsocialjustice.com. We have a lot to talk about in today’s show, so let’s get right into it and welcome Wendy Nystrom to the How To Disaster Podcast.
So Wendy, I’m really happy to have you on the podcast today, especially because your knowledge base is it’s just a very different from mine. And what I’m hoping you can do though is to start us off today, tell us about yourself and your background. And then we’ll get into how did you even get into this work in the space of disaster.
Wendy Nystrom: So first of all, thank you so much for having me. What you’re doing with this podcast is extremely important. Sharing information is very important and letting people know what is out there. So thank you for that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you.
Wendy Nystrom: So my background, I started off as an environmental consultant. So I did my degrees in geology and geochemistry, and worked as an environmental consultant where I learned firsthand about pollution contamination and how bad it can actually get, and I progressed into environmental and pollution insurance. So that’s a very different field that has to do with contamination at construction sites or releases into the public, and how that has to be cleaned up. And a lot of people back then didn’t have proper coverage in place, and they would go out of business or lose hundreds of millions of dollars due to cleanup. But as time progressed, more people bought the right coverages. And 20 years later, I decided to transition into something new and try something different. I worked in, I started to study sustainability so I thought that would be a really easy transition. Environmental person, geologists, sustainability, it’s all the same. It is a very different world. You learn about systems thinking, you learn about methods, you learn about energy. So I dove in headfirst, did my certificate at UCLA, got my certificate from the Envision Program to be a sustainability professional. I realized that I had this very unusual background of insurance, climate change, sustainability, pollution and environmental plus 20 years worth of experience and seeing it firsthand not just reading about it or having conversations about it. Dipping into the disaster side, when I was at UCLA, all of the papers I wrote had to do with wildfire and insurance. Because one of the things we see is insurance is having difficulty covering people’s properties with the massive amounts of wildfires that we’re having. Most people don’t understand that insurance companies are for profit, so that they are losing money, they can no longer offer their services and they will leave that marketplace. This has happened in the past where certain companies did leave the state of California. Now, our current Commissioner, Ricardo Lara, has passed several, I believe, ordinances or laws saying that if you’re an insurance carrier doing business in California, you must renew your policies. You cannot raise your rates by a certain amount. He caps it to keep it reasonable. And from a citizen standpoint, that’s fantastic. That is exactly what the state needs. Unfortunately for insurance carriers, it’s not possible in the long term. So if you’re constantly paying out losses and losing money, eventually you’ll go bankrupt. I mean, that’s just how it works.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m going to put a pin in that before we go on because I’m thinking about our audience and they’re often people who’ve just experienced disaster. They are disaster professionals. Couple of questions are going to come up right away. The first thing is we see a ton of people being dropped from their insurance. So that is so huge. While it’s great for the consumer, it also means people are exiting the market, which is problematic. Can you speak to that? And also, can you explain to our audience the role of reinsurance?
Wendy Nystrom: Sure. So when people are getting dropped from their insurance policies, again, the commissioner can only do so much by telling insurance carriers that they’re forced to renew, they are required to renew. That can only go on for so long, and there are people that cannot get proper insurance, and that’s when you can go to the fare plan. I don’t know if people are all that familiar with the California Fair Plan.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I am. But you can go ahead and explain it, because I’m actually going to do a podcast on Thursday with the homeowner who’s not been able to rebuild under the Fair Plan. And that was his insurance before.
Wendy Nystrom: Okay, so yeah. I’m glad you actually brought that up. Because the kind of the insider joke is, the Fair Plan isn’t fair. And it’s very high premium, and very limited coverage, because it is the last option available for people who want to get wildfire coverage. From what I’ve read, and I fully admit, I could be wrong, I could have misread things, there’s only so much information out there. But what I’ve read and learned is that the Fair Plan was originally created for people who live in cities who couldn’t get proper insurance. So all of a sudden, that translates into what they call the WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, where you have a much, much higher risk exposure for fire than you wouldn’t in a city.
“The problem is a lot of money going out, not a whole lot of money coming in, and it’s not sustainable. If you’re not bringing in a premium to keep your company afloat, you have to leave the marketplace.” –Wendy Nystrom
I mean, that’s just kind of obvious. So now, you have all of these consumers buying their insurance through the Fair Plan, it was never designed to really cover that, and then they’re calling in those claims. So that’s the problem. You have sort of a snowball effect of a lot of money going out, not a whole lot of money coming in, and it’s just for lack of a better term not sustainable. And insurance carriers going back to the regular insurance carriers that’s also not sustainable. Meaning, if you’re not bringing in a premium to keep your company afloat, you have to leave the marketplace. And that is unfortunately what we’re going to start seeing. And some of the chatter I get from my old insurance buddies that I still keep in touch with is that California is a very hot market, and they want out. I don’t know what will happen in the future, I don’t know what will be worked out. One of the things that needs to be done, which is where you and I connected originally was discussing prevention measures. It’s one thing to handle a claim, and cover insurance, and rebuild after the fire. It’s another thing to try to stop it before it starts, and we’ve seen a ton of that with, we thought we were doing the right thing by not touching our forests, letting them be natural. We made a mistake. We ended up building a lot of fuel, a lot of dry wood, a lot of scrub, which easily catches on fire. And unfortunately, the Caldor Fire grew extensively, like South Lake Tahoe is on fire.
“One of the things that need to be done is discussing prevention measures. It’s one thing to handle a claim, cover insurance, and rebuild after the fire. It’s another thing to try to stop it before it starts.” –Wendy Nystrom
Jennifer Gray Thompson: As we speak.
Wendy Nystrom: As we speak. And there’s a ski lodge, that there’s pretty dramatic photos of that ski lodge, the fires approaching it and hopefully won’t burn it down.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, and the Dixie Fire is the largest fire in our history. It’s about 777,000 acres as we speak. And what we’re hearing from fire professionals is it’s going to burn pretty much to the desert, that’s where it’s going to go. And because there is fuel between where it is now and all the way into the desert, and that’s when the fuel will tap out. So until it doesn’t have fuel, even though yesterday, we were about 45% contained, it’s just a massive, massive fire. So at the same time, we have Caldor. I’m actually glad that you brought up, we want to make everything political. I’ve seen people who will go on social media and they’re like, oh, well, Newsom is, and they can never saw Newsom, not sure why they always have to add an E. It’s his fault. I’m like, but he’s only been governor for a minute, so that’s not even possible. Not that I’m advocating for him, because that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying where should they go, when people want to talk about where the fault lies, some people want to venerate and say, oh, the logging industry was so amazing, and they should just come back and take control of our wildlands. Because they did it right. And in fact, they did it very, very wrong.
And then the issue is that environmentalists came in and they said, well, you’re doing that very, very wrong. So you can’t do that industry anymore. We’re going to lock up the forest because the forest knows how to behave, and everyone seems to have forgotten that the forest were, as our board member quoted, what would she say? She said, when John Muir walked into the West, he thought that he was seeing the wild lands, but instead he attended the garden. So that means that we all have a role and a responsibility. I’m just glad that you called in the reality of the situation, which is we all have faults and we all have responsibility.
Wendy Nystrom: And it’s all moderation. There is no one’s fault. There is no right answer, there is moderation and just finding a healthy balance, which the indigenous peoples of California had that balance and we messed it up. I’m sorry.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Amen, sister.
“We have to think back to what worked and stop thinking we’re going to do it better. We didn’t.” –Wendy Nystrom
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah. They had a doubt, they knew what to do, they had the control burns, and that’s how they handled it. So we have to kind of think back to what worked and stop thinking we’re gonna do it better. We didn’t.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. In fact, we always advocate for centralizing indigenous voices and practices as opposed to inviting them to the table. I don’t want to sit at their table, I don’t want to invite them to my table to do so. Yeah, I very much agree with you on that.
“We always advocate for centralizing indigenous voices and practices as opposed to inviting them to the table.” -Jennifer Thompson
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah. They had it all figured out, and we came and said, we can do it better. We messed it up a bit. So now, we need to kind of come back and say, may we please join your table and learn?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And learn how to live alongside wildfire. Like that has to be part of our plan. Our plan cannot be, we will suppress all wildfires. And to bring us all the way back around to insurance, insurance companies too can do things to embrace the idea that we can live alongside wildfire if we change how we build and rebuild more resilient, and we manage the forest in a way that’s ecologically sound and restores balance.
“Insurance companies too can do things to embrace the idea that we can live alongside wildfire if we change how we build and rebuild more resilient, and we manage the forest in a way that’s ecologically sound and restores balance.” -Jennifer Thompson
Wendy Nystrom: Well, it’s interesting. I’m circling back to insurance, my little world. If you think back to all the fires we had at the turn of the century, 1900’s, San Francisco burned down, other cities burned down, and so the insurance companies went to the cities and said, hey, we need to figure something out, because everything’s made of wood. Everything is highly flammable, so we’re gonna see this continue over and over again so we need to fix it. Hence, therefore, we created the fire departments, fire plugs were installed, homes were made out of non combustible materials and actually advertised as fire resistant. Or I think they actually called it fireproof back then, but nothing’s truly [inaudible]. So they worked with municipalities. We need to figure this out together, we need to revisit that conversation now. We’re in a new world, we’re in a new idea. We have much worse wildfires due to extreme heat and drought and everything that climate change is caused by. And we need to have a forward thinking conversation, not a reactionary one. And there are a ton of papers people have written, there’s plenty of information out there, we all have wonderful ideas, we need to take action. We’re in the time of action right now, and I cannot stress that enough that if I see another paper saying this is what we should do, and like, awesome. Can you please execute?
“We have much worse wildfires due to everything that climate change has caused. We need to have a forward-thinking conversation, not a reactionary one.” –Wendy Nystrom
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. It should be more like a war effort, and less like a planning for war efforts. Like that’s the level of the crisis with climate change generally. I was watching the floods yesterday in Louisiana. So as we’re, as we’re speaking, we’re also seeing floods unprecedented in parts of Louisiana. And I thought, at least with wildfire, there is a way to actually manage the forest so that they are not so, and there’s a way to build. There’s things that we can do that would make a big difference in a way that we almost have more control over how to deal with forest treatments in the American West, and how we build than they do, and how to deal with floods, wind and rain events in the East Coast. So can you talk about that a little bit, that nexus of climate change?
“There’s plenty of information out there, we all have wonderful ideas, we need to take action. We’re in the time of action right now.” –Wendy Nystrom
Wendy Nystrom: Climate change was causing all of our problems. So just for the general public to understand, we admitted a bunch of pollutants into the atmosphere that traps heat. The extreme heat we’re now facing is causing the change in our climate. Extreme heat is leading to drought, which is leading to wildfires, extreme storms. Here’s something interesting, and I cannot prove this, and I cannot find this. But when I was a college student at Boston University, my geochemistry professor had a graduate student write a paper that talked about global warming and the increase in severe storms. And I thought, that’s interesting. This is the mid 90’s. I’m like, well, that’s an interesting topic. Never occurred to me. Well, this could actually happen. This is exactly what’s happening. So whoever wrote this paper that I have no idea where it went. It was a woman, she was on top of it. She saw this connection 30 years ago, and we’re now only paying attention to it. So everything’s a chain reaction, everything’s related. And one of the things that I’ve said for the past three years, and I’m going to say it again, because hopefully, someone will actually do it. If we can build an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, can we build a water pipeline from the Midwest, which is continuously flooding to the Colorado River, and everyone says there’s no money in it. I’m like, but we’re dying. Wait a minute?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Coz I was watching the flooding issue and like, if only we could just have some of that water. I was just thinking, we’re watching the exact inverse. The issue here, and oil is not sustainable whatsoever. But water? Water is the most complicated, expensive, interesting thing you can ever deal with. Which is why I am very respectful when I don’t know about water. But I think that’s interesting.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah. If you have too much water, drowning and flooding, you have too little drought and crops dying. So we have the technology, we just need someone to actually want to flip the bill or explain why it’s a reasonable thing to spend money on.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One, I wonder, there’s probably all these water experts out there right now. I’m sure many of them listening to this podcast [inaudible], into either their YouTube, or their Spotify, or iTunes. And I apologize to you, if you’re out there hearing this, I would wonder about the environmental impacts of any pipeline especially across indigenous lands. And we see that there’s a lot of issues, but if it could along the way sort of inform how you have areas in the southwest that are incredibly dry could absolute farm and agriculture that could use more water. It’s a big idea, but I like a big idea so I’m not mad at that.
Wendy Nystrom: Thank you. Yeah, it is. Everyone’s got like, this won’t work, this won’t work, this won’t work. And I’m like, well, 150 years ago when people were putting oil pipelines everywhere, they said, well, that won’t work. We figured it out. There are very intelligent people out there that can say, well, very intelligent engineers smarter than me, I’m sure could figure this out.
“A lot of the technology that we need to deal with this issue already exists, and we just haven’t applied it.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m sure that they could. And then we’d have one more vulnerability around cyber terrorism, nevermind video with all of that stuff too. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. It just means that that should be thought about in the design of it by somebody, by people who are engineers. I agree with you entirely that a lot of the technology that we need to actually deal with this issue already exists, and we just haven’t applied it, which is why a third of our organization, After The Fire, just looking at resiliency and recovery technologies and wanting to amplify the people in that space who are daring to innovate our way through this.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah. I’m getting back to the preventative side of things. I mean, there are little things every homeowner could do to harden their homes. You can close off your eaves. That’s what the embers go into your roof, and that’s how your roof catches on fire. So you can close that off. If you have a lot of vegetation around your house, I grew up in the Midwest, the bushes went right up to the edge of the house, maybe you trim them for the bugs. But here, you want like five feet away from your home. Because what if that catches on fire, it’s just going to go right in. A lot of people are doing community wide efforts with the fire department where they will pull back or deal with the agriculture that’s going on homes or neighborhoods, goats and sheep. I know that sounds ridiculous and stupid, but those things will eat everything.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I actually did a podcast with this guy at Chayka school. He’s a seventh generation rancher here in Sonoma County, and he totally took us all the way through native grasses, and how to know when to graze which animals at which time. There’s a horrible science to that. We have funded a website called match.graze. So grazers but no land, you can then, it’s like tinder for fuel mitigation.
Wendy Nystrom: I love it. And that’s what it is, fuel mitigation. People who have a lot of goats and sheep or have herds, they will run out of things for their animals to eat, so they do need your grasses. And people who have an explosion of scrub and grasses materials and don’t know how to get rid of it, this is a perfect matchmaking event because both parties going to get the sheep and goats fed, you’re going to clear off your brush, you just have to be careful what they eat because some things are poisonous. So I had that little chat with the rancher. But there’s other things you could do. I mean, when you bring in those goats and sheep, they’re going to bring soil moisture in. Just from the waste product, we don’t need to get into that, but they’re going to stamp that in, it becomes a carbon sink and it adds moisture and fuses natural fertilizer to the soils. So this is just an all around benefit that many people don’t think all the way through. This is just the best thing we could do, and it’s completely natural. And then house harding, going back to building materials, people are split between whether or not you should move out into these wildland areas and be further away from cities. If you are going to move outside, just be cognizant of what you build your home out of. Concrete, great wood, maybe not so much. If you have a generator, be careful. Anything can spark, so you want to definitely reduce your sparks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. This solution implements wildfire mitigation measures. I have it right here, and we’ll make sure that we link that down in the comments. This goes into insurance and goes back to that conversation. I do hear people say, people shouldn’t live in the WUI anymore. And I say, well, which overpass shall we move them to live underneath? Because in California, in particular, our next level NIMBY’s. Everybody loves affordable housing, but not near them. That’s not the right place for it. And also, I bristle at the implication that there’s only one way that we should just abandon the WUI and not live in it. I can see you saying, hey, let’s not approve a 200 home subdivision deep into the WUI. I have no issue with that. But currently, we have a ton of small towns, like Greenville where I was about three weeks ago after they burned, they have like 90% gone. 80 to 90% of their town is gone and they live very near a National Forest. And the thing is that there’s already a thousand Green Girls and a thousand Paradises out there, so how can we bring the cost down and the resiliency up for these communities in a way that the insurance companies will be willing to continue to engage, and this is across the American West.
Wendy Nystrom: So that can get broken down to a few bits. So if you’re going to build, this is a long answer. If you’re going to build in these Wildland Urban Interface areas, or WUI’s, you definitely want to build out stronger fire resistant materials. So the idea of building out of wood is a very bad one. 3D modeled houses, modular homes, even container homes are becoming very popular, and some of them can be beautiful. I’ve seen some great designs from container homes or 3D homes, 3D printed homes, and that’s all fire resistant. You get the proper engineers, again, praising engineers, get the proper engineers in there, and they will actually orientate the house to maximize the heating and cooling without the use of AC or extra electricity, very brilliant people. So once you get that established, and then you clear out your vegetation, and you do all of your protective measures, insurance companies are still going to be careful. There are a lot of newer companies coming out there that are kind of cherry picking their best fits. So definitely, get your broker to expand beyond, not just the retail insurance companies, but the wholesale insurance companies, which is a different product.
But one thing I’ve been talking about for the past, probably three years now, is for municipalities, or agencies, or somebody to create a captive insurance policy. A captive insurance policy, for the simplistic way to explain it is like self insurance. Not self insurance, but for the discussion we’re having right here right now, it’s a self contained insurance policy that in my role is funded by the municipality. There is funding out there for wildfire, resilience, wildfire prevention, wildfire response, so you’re funded through they’re, not necessarily taxpayers, not necessarily homeowners paying into it, but there’s self funded captive is where you pay into it, but then you also the losses come out of it. And what triggers it is something called parametrics. Parametrics have been a top discussion for probably four or five years now, and it was primarily the first time I ever heard of it was in Katana Ruin Cancun. They insured a coral reef against hurricanes. And I thought, why would you ever insure a coral reef against a hurricane? This makes perfect sense. Cancun is entirely dependent on their tourism. So if that coral reef gets destroyed, the beach will go away. The storm surges will just scrape it away, your tourism dies. So what do they do? They protect that coral reef, and the parametric trigger is the level of the hurricane. So level one hurricane, category one will give you X amount of dollars. A level two brings in Y amount of dollars. Level three, Z and so on. So there’s no discussion. There’s no argument about how much you get paid. There’s no lawyers involved. There’s no discussion of, how much is your beach worth? Doesn’t matter. You get a level one category, here’s the amount of money you get.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sorry, I just got right there.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah. The Katana Ruin example was originally paid for by the government, and I believe the hotel hospitality industry, with the understanding that when they renewed the hospitality industry would renew and cover that payment. Now, COVID hit right when they were renewing. So the entire hospitality industry suffered. I’m not sure if hospitality paid the full premium on that one, or if it was, again, a split with the government. But it was a way to figure out a problem proactively that would address it simplistically. I mean, again, the captive having parametric triggers is the simplest way that you can do a policy. No, not everybody agrees with that, and it’s definitely a discussion to have. But I think the sooner we have those discussions, the faster we will solve our problems. Specifically with wildfire. I was speaking to a woman recently. I’m so sorry, I’m forgetting her name, brilliant woman. She’s like, we need to start naming her wildfires. You know how we have the hurricanes that just hit [inaudible], name your wildfire. Well, and that was Kathy Bachman McLeod.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I saw that same idea on LinkedIn with a colleague, Laurie Schumann who is the head of disaster for Enterprise Community Partners. Most of her experiences in wind and rain, and she said, why don’t we name these heat waves, because they have such horrific effects. And then you get little fires, like the Cache Fire that we were in last week in Lake County that has 56 level homes for people who are vulnerable, 55 and over, and it’s built on a watershed, it soaks right into Cache Creek. So if it’s not cleaned up by October 15, which is the start of the rainy season, we call it the height of the fire season. It will actually have a horrendous environmental impact. So unless it is folded into the federal resources, it’s not going to trigger all of those extra resources for the poorest county in the state of California. And with some of the most water, most beautiful water resources and natural resources in the entire state. I just want to jump right on that idea and say, I totally agree with you. I would love preemptive federal declarations for disaster that sort of scoops, especially these little towns keep going, I got very excited about that.
“Doing individual home by individual home for insurance purposes can’t work. Wildfires don’t pick and choose homes. So if you have full coverage, or you made your house really resilient, you might be spared. But if your entire neighborhood isn’t doing the same, it’s probably for not. Insurance needs to be on a community-wide basis.” –Wendy Nystrom
Wendy Nystrom: I actually hadn’t thought about naming them, it wasn’t till I was interviewing Kathy McLeod from the Atlantic Council. And when you start naming them, and then you start categorizing them, hurricanes are categorized by wind speed and property damage. So we have that with fire, we have fired tornadoes. Now, we have zombie fires, that’s a fun one, where they come back to life, where we thought they were dead. So this is actually, we’re a little late to the game with naming these. They should have been named a while ago, it should have been given categories so we can track them and get the federal funding to help them. But again, that’s all responsive. Well, we need to really start getting these federal funding for, and individuals. So it’s not just 100% relying on the government, but individuals . You have to start preparing your own home, preparing your own land and being a little more resilient with yourself. Community wide responses are also fantastic. I believe I’ve mentioned before, there was a community that their fire department got everybody together to clear out brush, and everyone kind of chipped in. The elderly who couldn’t clean up their own bush around their houses, the neighborhood came forward and did it for them. So this is a community wide response. Doing individual home by individual home for insurance purposes can’t work. Wildfires don’t pick and choose homes. So if you have full coverage, or you made your house really resilient, you might be spared. But if your entire neighborhood isn’t doing the same, it’s probably for not, and that’s what most people need to do is, this has to be a community wide response, insurance needs to be on a community wide basis.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: See them even start to help, so fund this, or if your neighborhood — so they’re firewise communities, and because we have we keep continuously an epicenter for burning down right here, we’ve got four mega fires including 2017. So we’ve not been spared, except for this year so far. But we want to be an active participant in helping insurance companies stay, helping them remain ethical. Because I know that a few years ago, they sent out a memo to a large mortgage underwriter proposing that they wouldn’t cover anything that was a wildfire, destructure loss as a result of ember cast. I was like, no, that’s not okay.
Wendy Nystrom: That’s not okay.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Maybe we have to provide, we can partner on making this better. So talk to us now about the group that you formed, and what you want to do with the group, and where people can find out more information. So let’s start with the group that you formed in order to proactively address some of these concerns.
Wendy Nystrom: I helped organize a group, we call ourselves the Wildfire Fund. We’re just loosely organized, we are not a 501c3, we’re not business. We are five volunteers soon to be six. We met through another group that was a bit more disorganized and couldn’t come to a conclusion, so we all kind of found each other. The ones who were really passionate about this and that really wanted to focus on the preventive measures, and we kind of pulled ourselves aside and only started formulating our own ideas when we reached out to you. And we are an organization of, we have a data engineer guy, we have a finance ESG guy, me the insurance person, we have a person who focuses on housing issues, and just with these preventive measures. So started off with the idea of the sheep and the goats grazing, removing the scrub brush. And then the engineering guys said: “Well, what about IoT?” And I’m like: “IoT? How does that play into it?” And they said: “Internet of Things where you put cameras deep in the woods where it’s all satellite. And this way, you can see if there’s a fire where it can detect it where there’s no human beings yet. So you stop it before it gets out of control.” And I thought, well, that sounds expensive. Apparently, it’s not.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s not.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah, apparently, putting cameras everywhere is not that expensive, and drones.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m gonna send you a guy, I’m not gonna say the name of the company because we don’t endorse private companies. But he contacted me about maybe three or four weeks ago and showed me their product. That is, I suggested that they put a camera option on there that can use WiFi. Because for some owners, they’re going to want if they’re going to have the ability to do that. But this actually just works on repeater technology, and it uses chemistry.
Wendy Nystrom: Interesting.
“The detection of wildfire early can be a huge cost-saving mechanism, grief-saving mechanism, trauma-saving mechanism.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Has to have a certain amount of potassium, and then it can detect and then you put a network of them up, and their plan is, their goal anyway is to make sure that they normalize the use of these in neighborhoods and homes, especially deep in the WUI to do early fire detection, especially the canopy where you often don’t see it, depending upon the type of forest that you have. And I should make that side note that we’re very aware that Chaparral is not the same as a redwood forest, and that everything needs a different treatment. But the detection of wildfire early can be a huge cost saving mechanism, grief saving mechanism, trauma saving mechanism and the technology exists. And I’m going to connect you with him because I think that their ideas are very interesting. And they cost about, maybe you can do a whole system for about $500.
Wendy Nystrom: Oh, that’s brilliant.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And that’s really 10 units. So I asked him if they’d be willing to do a pilot in Paradise, and we’re working on it. So I’ll send that to you today.
Wendy Nystrom: Oh, that’s great. Because again, community wide responses are what we need. And other people have drones. And what I like about the drone side of things is you can do infrared scanning where you can see through the canopy, you can see the hotspots. I mentioned zombie fires before. So the zombie fires, you think the embers are dead, you think everything’s down. But in fact, it’ll pop right back up again. You can see through the canopy, you can see through the smoke, and you can see those hotspots where they can say to the fire departments, hey, you still have some embers burning here, you might want to put those out if you can, or focus on this area before it explodes again. So the technology that’s out there is phenomenal. We just need to start getting it out there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: If you want to say that, please do not fly your drones without permission from the fire department, you can actually make the situation far worse. But if you use drones in conjunction with the fire department, CAL FIRE now has drones to actually have an opportunity to do a public/private sector partnership, which is something that we always, always, always love. We do not want you to get in the way of your effort to be helpful by flying your drone no matter how good you are at it, just as a side note, because I think that was a problem in the Dixie Fire too.
“It needs an expert who knows what they’re doing, not the amateurs who think they’re helping but actually fanning some flames.” –Wendy Nystrom
Wendy Nystrom: I absolutely believe that it needs an expert who actually knows what they’re doing, not the amateurs and thinks they’re helping and could actually be fanning some flames there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I interrupted you because I was very excited, and I apologize for that. I know you have the tech expert. So when you all meet, are you looking to do advocacy? Are you looking to do a sort of ignition of will and action? What are your goals?
Wendy Nystrom: So primarily, we’re talking to quite a few. You and I have discussed this. When wildfires became popular, for lack of a better term, everyone dove into space. Everyone’s like, I’ve got the technology, I can do this. I can give you data, I can do mapping. Well, everyone created their own 501c3 or their LLC to make money. They all wanted to just, how much can I profit off of this? My group that we’re all part of, we’re not like that. We are not here to profit off of someone’s disaster, we are here to help. We’re working with 501c3, we’re working with LLC, private businesses, municipalities simply saying we have a group of skills, we have a knowledge base, my background being the insurance communication side of things. We’re here to help and partner, and be part of it. We can help with grant writing, we can help get the funding as long as you know we can use it for what we want to work on. But we never formed that 501c3 simply because it made no sense to have yet another entity fighting for the same pot of money. I think we need more collapse, and more people consolidating together. You and I have met some brilliant people, exceptionally brilliant people, and we are all bringing each other together. And we’re going to fail if we don’t. If everyone tries to compete in, if everyone says, well, I’ve got my profit plan here or my business plan there, it’s not going to work. I know some people that are trying to get insurance companies just to pay for it. It’s like the insurance companies are not charitable organizations. They want to help, they want this problem to go away as well, they want fires to go away, but they can’t fix it for us. Again, it has to be a collaboration of several people together to resolve this, and I cannot stress that enough.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I totally agree. I appreciate that. It’s been interesting because we were formed in response to our massive wildfire, mega fire disaster in October of 2017. And we thought, oh, we’ll do this for five years, and this is how long it will take for us to really get on the road to rebuilding, and the problem is too large for our existing nonprofit world and our public sector to actually attend, and we want to do our part. We had no idea what ended up happening 13 months later with the Woolsey Fire and the Campfire, even a month later with the Thomas Fire after our fire, we had no clue of the apocalyptic future that was ahead of us. I say that, and I remain an optimist, but I’m also a realist. There’s no looking away from it at this point, there is no magical thinking. Understandable, but not allowed. We don’t all get on the bus and get on the bus together.
I agree that we’re going to fail, and our goal in After The Fire is to set a tone of ethics and intention. And we’re very interested because people are rushing into this space. We end up having a lot of meetings with them. And one of the things that we try to really stress is that we’re here to collaborate with you, really. Our big superpower at this point is that we know how to collaborate, and we know how to partner, and we know how to do it respectfully. And we don’t do any individual assistance. We do leadership, really. We’re like a leadership academy for people who want to be in this space, but we are sort of like rushing out there, trying to get people to see that. Or we’re like, we’re so glad you’re here, would you please, please learn how to do it in a way that serves the fire affected community in a way that is non parasitic and non predatory. Because if we see you out there being either of those things, we are going to whistleblow on you. And we’ve done it good. Because unfortunately, I have met quite a few characters where they’re 100% for profit, they want to sell maps, or data, or info. And it’s like, I understand wanting to make money, who doesn’t? But not off of these disasters, not off people losing their homes, losing their communities, losing their families. As you said parasitic, I really don’t have much tolerance for that.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And we expect the private sector to enter into this space. They’ve always been in it, especially in flood control. Actually, I personally don’t even care if people make a profit. We understand that there’s going to be a disaster industrial complex, we want to minimize that as much as possible. And certainly, if you’ve lived in a disaster area, you definitely have seen like you’ve come out from shopping and had attorneys flyers on your cars where the attorneys are getting quite a lot of money out of this, and the people who are actually that they’re representing are not. We’re not saying don’t get an attorney, we’re saying to choose your attorney wisely. Very famous attorney, or a movie was even created about her, and I will not say her name, who I thought was really cool before I experienced living in a disaster zone. I have a very, very, very different opinion about her. Even sometimes, there are snakes disguised as angels and you have to watch out for them as well. I was really happy to see the local sheriff. He was at St. John’s Parish this morning in Louisiana, like to call out specifically contractors and say, and the other wonderful contractors out there who do amazing work. And then there’s the contractors who rush in and they say, I’m going to fix it, it’s going to be way under that cost. He’s just, even the legal, you can’t give me more than $1,000 in this state anyway. If you give me 100,000, I’ll make sure that you’ll be done and back in your home in a year. And they’ll bring the cost of rebuilding down, and pardon my language if your children are in the car, bullshit.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And they will defraud you, and it’s very common, or they overestimate what they’re actually able to do. They’re commercial builders, so then they’re like, well, we’ll just rush into home building when they’re just not the same thing.
Wendy Nystrom: People are also distraught. You’re at the hardest crux in your life, and you think someone’s coming to help you, and when people should be coming to help. And unfortunately, there are just some people out there who are not. And that is a tragedy that happens frequently, unfortunately. But groups like your group, you’re out there saving them from those guys.
“Your chances of being defrauded go down precipitously if you know your rights, and if you know what’s available to you.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, we’re trying. We’re trying to make sure that they know that for most of the mortgage lenders in this country, if you experience a disaster, especially if it’s federally declared, you don’t have to pay your mortgage for the next year. And that includes landlords. You can say, I’m going to defer, if I have a 30 year fixed and I’m in year, say 13, I can move that 13th or 14th year onto the very end of my mortgage without any fees. And there are ways to do that. What you really want to give people who’ve undergone a great trauma and disaster is you want to give them a minute that they can process the trauma, and a minimum one year. It takes at least that long to even begin to get through how painful it is. And the amount of trauma and loss is something that you will have to contend with probably for many, many, many, many years. But it gives you that first year so that your chances of being defrauded go down precipitously if you know your rights, and if you know what’s available to you.
Wendy Nystrom: I’m glad that you do explain that to people that they can hold off their mortgage payments for an entire year, because that does give you a pause. That’s the most important thing, taking that pause. Because most people who’ve never been through a fire, I’ve never personally been through one. But when someone’s house gets burned, or a tornado, or hurricane, you lose absolutely everything. You walk out, I mean, if you’re lucky enough to pack a couple bags, maybe grab some personal mementos, great. A lot of people run, and you literally have nothing but the clothing you’re wearing. And whatever you happen to have in the car, especially with wildfires, so we don’t get like, oh, in a week, we’re gonna have a major wildfire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The CAL FIRE Chief yesterday, and I posted this on our Facebook, he basically used the strongest language I’ve ever heard. He said, a warning means your car is packed and you’re ready to go. You should really leave at that point, you shouldn’t wait for it to be mandatory. Then he said, at some point, every acre of California is going to burn, so we all have to be ready. I was not mad at that because I don’t want that to be true. But I really liked his message, it was very clear.
Wendy Nystrom: And people need to hear that because they always think it’s not going to happen to me, I’m safe where I am, I’m in a city or I’m in a densely populated area. We had the Woolsey fire four years ago, four or five, near where I live, which I believe was that Pacific Palisades area, I think. The hillside was on fire, and we thought the Getty Museum was going to burn. And it had never gotten that close before at least not that I knew of. So people don’t realize it actually can happen. It’s unlikely as if you’re in a wooded area, but the heat that we are getting, the extreme drought, we are getting the overgrowth of scrub brush that we are getting, our shrub, or trees, or forests. All of that is a chain reaction to each other, and we need to prepare and start planning how to address it before dealing with how to recover from it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes. Do you think we have a long decade, minimum or 20 years, of doing how we’re going to be responding to these mega fires like the Woolsey fire. You’re actually coming up on your 3rd anniversary on November 8. I saw the fires in my brain. I only remember that too because I helped with that one, but also because it’s the same exact day as the Campfire. So two devastating events. But often, the Woolsey fire is forgotten because it was smaller. And because a lot of people who were affected, but not all like the Woolsey fire, the person that I’m going to speak to for the next podcast has not been able to yet rebuild under the Fair Plan, just bringing that all the way back around to insurance. But think of how they get lost. So one after the other, after the other, after the other, and we have at least 10 to 20 years, we’re going to be responding to these mega fires. We’re going to be innovating in applying existing technologies, like you said. And at the same time, mitigating. We got to mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. And at least we have somewhat of a path forward, which is the first time I thought of this. Because looking at the wind and rain events, I was like, well, how do you keep the ocean away? Very different problem.
So asking FEMA to actually acknowledge and separate those two problems and our two approaches to that cannot be lumped the same. Because too often in a wildfire, all of the rules that we use or a lot of them are actually born in wind and rain events. So entirely different, like your building isn’t necessarily gone after a flood. Even with a significant flood the last four years, it was built a certain way. You might have something to salvage in a wildfire. It’s three inches of oily ash. That’s it.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah. People don’t really realize the damage left behind the pollution, the contamination. That’s a whole nother issue to discuss. But when you talked about the Woolsey Fire, Climate Resolve did a fantastic paper about the Woolsey Fire in the aftermath and climate migration. People had to leave and move somewhere else because they couldn’t go back home. But one thing that struck me from that paper, I think a lot of people don’t understand is the social justice aspect. And what I mean by that? This is Malibu where this fire happened and a lot of the homeowners left, but they told their staff to stay behind and fight the fire. I have a problem with that. Primarily, because it’s not their home, they have their own family, their own homes. How could you ever ask somebody to risk their life or your house when you yourself were not willing to stay behind?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, interesting. Because I always have such mixed feelings about, I mean, it’s terrible. Everyone’s our constituent when you have a mega fire and that fire was terrible. Nobody should be asking their staff to stay behind a fire to fire. That’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous notion to even think that that was even a good idea for anybody to do. One of the things that got lost in that fire, highlighted a couple of different things for us. One of them is that you don’t have teachers who lived in Malibu and apartments, or wasn’t all one constituency, it wasn’t all the Kardashians, and people don’t always really understand that there was some degree, not a huge amount of variety, but an artist community who lost their entire collection of their original art, things that were not replaceable. They lost some people from their teachers community, and you have them that loss of jobs too..
The other two interesting things that happened are they lost two mobile home parks, one with seminal springs, which is right across from Gary Jones house, that’s where I’m interviewing next. Also my second cousin, full disclosure. He’s in his 70’s, his my mom’s cousin, and he had been through many wildfires in Malibu Canyon on Mulholland and had never even bothered to evacuate. And then this one moved just so much faster. That’s something that the CAL FIRE Chief said yesterday that even with the unprecedented fire behavior we’ve been seeing, the current fire behavior is unprecedented on top of unprecedented. They’ve never actually seen this kind of fire behavior before. The other thing is, like seminal springs, about half of their units burned and their Coop. So rebuilding that is incredibly complex because you’re asking people whose homes didn’t burn to help underwrite the cost in some ways of those who did. And that’s been a stymie for them. I’m going to check in on them. There were people who were not without means. And the second thing that I highlighted for us was the issue of communication failures in disasters. You see this like, listening to them in Louisiana this morning and they don’t have communications, and we’ve not built enough resilience, and it’s not really required either in our systems.
So it’s not just the people who are home, we’re not taking you first responders. How are they going to do it? FEMA has figured it out? They send people with iPads, they can do it on when they go back to their office, it will batch upload. There are ways to do this, but why not have a really a deployable innovative because all the technology exists. Communication systems that can be deployed in different types of disasters that are resilient under different weather conditions. Because in Malibu, what happened is our entire city was on internet and cellular network and no landlines. Here comes the fire in Riva film and the city manager had to run the city from the lifeguard station because there’s a landline there. And then the L.A Times the next day, L.A Times, New York Times has a photo of all these mutual responders in their fire trucks on Zuma beach. And the constituents in Malibu were like, what? Why weren’t you going up into the Canyon to save our homes? And the reason why is because you cannot send people from other agencies who cannot communicate with each other where they will not be safe, and because there were no communication systems that were resilient. That’s my very long treatise on the Woolsey fire.
Wendy Nystrom: I know. I love the fact that you brought up the communication because you and I had that discussion about a year ago. And with everything happening, Louisiana, it hit me that I bet all of their communication lines went down again because we are dependent on Wi-Fi cellular. So again, engineers out there, the big smart guys with big brains, and women, satellites maybe direct, you used to have satellite phones, or remember those big honkin things back in the 90’s? Bring that back.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I have a two way radios, you can do a family network that goes across 30 miles in different geographies. And if you have the means to invest in it, they are about $50 each, and we have a set of 8 or 10. So there are really analog solutions, but also that a lot of the technology that we don’t deploy here in the United States is used overseas by the United States in a totally different structure for disaster response in other countries. We have this technology because Lord knows we’ve been to war a lot. A lot of those technologies can be applied, and I think they will be applied. I don’t think that this is going to revolutionize the disaster industry, but it’s time quite frankly.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah, we need to start thinking outside of this will never happen to me box.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I always think it’s gonna happen to me, all the time. I didn’t want to paint that walk, it’s just gonna burn down. Like that’s a coping mechanism for my job. I’m a catastrophist and an optimist at the same time.
Wendy Nystrom: That’s a dichotomy right there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Now it makes me complicated.
Wendy Nystrom: It’s what I like about you. You think of the complicated things.
“There are other solutions, unless we continue to be very open to them, we’re never going to get to the other side.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I like to say, stare down the abyss, see what stares back. Wendy, I really enjoy you. I love that your brain is in this field, and that you are really diving deep into ideas, like the captive insurance model, which may not work everywhere, but may work in some instances. There’s rarely anything that’s a catch all or we’ll fix on, I don’t know, but it could be one solution for a certain number of people, but it has to be differentiated from the Fair act. Flood insurance is a consistently overdrawn program, its federal government and not sustainable, and hasn’t actually been since it was invented. But I think that there are other solutions. And unless we continue to be very open to them, then we’re never going to get to the other side. I appreciate your efforts and being your colleague, and thank you for being on the podcast.
Wendy Nystrom: Well, thank you. And good thing you brought up flood because one of the things we’re talking about is doing fire and flood under the same program. Because when you have a fire, you’re probably not gonna have a flood. We’re gonna have a flood, you’re probably not gonna have a fire. So those two risks kind of offset each other.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They do. Unless you’re Sonoma County, and then next year, you’ll have a massive flood. And that’s the only year you won’t have a mega fire, but it is still worth it to live here.
Wendy Nystrom: Yeah, that is very true. It’s a beautiful place. Well, thank you, and I love everything you’re doing. Please keep moving forward, keep expanding, keep going across the country guys. You are in 11 states now, keep going.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. We’ll keep collaborating. So thank you for being one of our collaborators. I really appreciate it.
Wendy Nystrom: Of course, anytime. You take care.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You take care too. Thank you again Wendy Nystrom for being on the podcast, How To Disaster where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine.