People want to live closer to nature, but that love of nature definitely carries with it inherent risks; in particular, wildfire risk.
That risk has been underlined heavily in recent months, including in August when the Rim Fire burned more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park and has cost well over $120 million to fight the fire.
Firefighters defended communities on the western edge of the Yosemite blaze, which charred 111 buildings including 31 residences, but danger loomed for 4,500 additional homes. The Rim fire is the seventh largest in the state’s history. Additionally, the average wildfire today is five times bigger than it was 30 years ago.
“The main issue in community risk is that people now want to live in closer proximity to the forest,” explained Wade Martin, chair of the Economics Department at Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) and editor of “Wildfire Risk: Human Perceptions and Natural Implications.” “As people build infrastructure on the wildland-urban interface, you get more of the built society exposed to these risks. The question becomes, how do you deal with that risk?
“There are some things that homeowners and businesses can do. Historically, there are strategies that have been followed that focus on putting out fires as quickly as possible,” Martin explained. “But by doing that, you don’t allow nature to clean itself out. The fires have a bigger fuel load, they burn hotter and longer and faster and over more acres. Climate change also has affected the susceptibility of forests to more intense burning. This can have a dramatic impact on the ecosystem and its ability to recover.”
Climate change also has affected the susceptibility of forests to more intense burning. The fire season is longer. The moisture content of the forest has decreased. The forests burn easier.
Community risk management begins at home, and there are a number of steps communities and individuals can take to reduce their community wildfire risk. California is fortunate to have a well-developed system of Fire Safe Councils.
One of the keys to community risk management is money. Martin pointed to the passage of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act in 2009 as a major development in fighting wildfires. The FLAME Act established two FLAME Funds; one for the Department of the Interior funded at $61 million and one for the Forest Service funded at $413 million in 2010.
“What the FLAME Act did was separate the firefighting budget from the Forest Service’s operating budget,” Martin pointed out. “Historically, firefighting costs came out of the Forest Service’s operating budget. The FLAME Act created another resource for fighting fires. However, during the last two years these funds have been significantly reduced due to the ongoing budget negotiations in Washington, D.C. The result has been that there is now less money for risk mitigation treatments on the public lands which leads to increased fuel loads and more severe wildfires.”
The economic community is at risk, too. “As with any disaster seen from an economic point of view, you have the reduced production from the destruction of the existing infrastructure,” he said. “When people are evacuated, they are less productive at work, assuming they are able to go back to work. You have this dislocation and a decline in economic activity.”
But the danger of wildfire risk isn’t exclusive to California. “When you put homes in close proximity to these threats, which have only increased over the last 20 years, then you’re looking at dramatic fires that threaten communities such as Colorado Springs or south Denver,” Martin noted. “The tragic Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000 or the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in Australia demonstrate the devastating impacts to communities in both the immediate aftermath of the event and the long-term recovery.
“Still,” he added, "our research on housing prices have clearly showed individuals are willing to pay a premium to live in close proximity to nature even with the increased risk from wildfire resulting in the increased likelihood of even more such events in the future.”
Living the California lifestyle means wildfire risk will continue.
“Globally, California is in the top three areas facing wildfire risk along with Australia and France, but the issue is tradeoff. Homes are insured and it is very appealing to live close to nature,” Martin said. “Hopefully, in a more stable economic environment, there will be more resources available to treat the forests to reduce fuel loads and improve the health of the ecosystem and the affected population. Perhaps that won’t happen anytime soon, but it will eventually because the alternative is looking at millions of dollars in losses.”