Federal wildfire policy and the responsibilities of community planners and homeowners

If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.

fire Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, 2009
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, 2009. NPS photo.

This is an excerpt from an article at Headwaters Economics written by Kimiko Barrett titled “Federal wildfire policy and the legacy of suppression.” Most of the original piece lays out the history of wildfires and the related government policies. Below is the last part that covers the 2018 wildfire budgeting fix and the responsibilities of individual homeowners and the government. It is used here with permission.


…To end the cycle of deficit spending and wildfire borrowing, a massive appropriations bill was passed in 2018—which was also the worst wildfire season in decades and saw the death of over 80 civilians from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Captured as a provision in the omnibus bill, the “wildfire fix” treats wildfires similar to other natural disasters and establishes a reserve fund to use during extreme wildfire seasons. Starting in 2020, a wildfire disaster fund of $2.25 billion was created and will be gradually increased over the following 10 years. When the Forest Service’s suppression costs exceed annual appropriations, based on FY2015 levels, funds can be withdrawn from the reserve budget rather than borrowing from nonfire programs. The spending bill also increases funding for fuels reduction projects, grants environmental review exemptions for projects meeting categorical exclusion, extends land stewardship programs, and initiates the process of wildfire risk mapping.

The 2018 wildfire fix was widely applauded by nongovernmental organizations, industries, and policymakers for stabilizing agency budgets and ending wildfire borrowing. While the new legislation provides the Forest Service with the financial flexibility to accommodate soaring suppression costs, it reaffirms the government’s prioritization of fire control and the protection of people and homes at any price.

From Federal Policy to Local Action

Continued reliability on wildfire suppression shifts responsibility for home protection from the individual homeowner and local jurisdictions to the federal government. Yet local communities bear the economic, environmental, and social costs of wildfire disasters, and some of the most essential mitigation actions need to be taken at the scale of individual communities and homes.

At the neighborhood and community scale, land use planning provides a suite of mitigation measures. Land use planning tools, such as regulations, zoning, and building codes can influence how, where, and under what conditions homes can be built in high wildfire hazard areas. Through the proactive lens of planning and anticipating wildfires, people and communities can learn to live with wildfire on the landscape.

By performing basic home mitigation measures, such as trimming trees, managing vegetation, safely storing flammable materials away from the home, and reducing other vulnerabilities within the home ignition zone (HIZ), a home’s chances of surviving a wildfire greatly increase. Constructing a home using wildfire-resistant building materials can also contribute to a home’s survivability during a wildfire.

Conclusion

Large and extreme wildfires are inevitable and efforts to extinguish them are costly, dangerous, and unrealistic. The federal government’s ongoing commitment to wildfire suppression is rooted in early 20th century policies that haven’t kept pace with current science and knowledge on wildfire behavior. If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.

This post is based on an article originally published in the Idaho Law Review, Volume 55(1).

Kimiko Barrett has a deep interest in rural landscapes and the people who live there. Born and raised in Bozeman, Montana, she appreciates the outdoors and the intimate connections people have with the land. After obtaining undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Japanese, Kimi completed a Master’s in Geography from Montana State University and a Ph.D. in Forestry from University of Montana. Her doctorate research focused on climate change impacts in high mountain ecosystems and took her to remote places in the western Himalayas.

Data shows the worsening trend of California wildfires

Cumulative Acres Burned, 1979-2018, for all Fires in CaliforniaIt’s clear to most citizens of California that wildfires have become more intense over the last few years. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the Nature Conservancy have compiled a new dataset of damage caused by wildfires in California in areas protected by the state of California. (Some of the data does not include fires on lands protected by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and the BLM). The report illustrates how the recent set of severe fires fits into a broader trend of increasing burn area and damage over the past 40 years.

The report was written by: Hanna Buechi (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB), Dick Cameron (The Nature Conservancy), Sarah Heard (The Nature Conservancy), Andrew J. Plantinga (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB), and Paige Weber (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB).

The researchers studied data on fire perimeters and estimates of damages for each fire and used the information to calculate trends involving the number and timing of fires throughout the state by time of year. They also calculated the total area burned and specifically identified the amount of wildland urban-interface burned. These are areas where houses intermingle with wildland vegetation, and are of particular concern to those studying wildfire.

Andrew Plantinga
Andrew Plantinga. UCSB photo.

“The main finding is that the recent severe fires in California — including the Thomas fire in 2017 and the Camp fire in 2018 — are part of a trend in California over the past four decades,” said Andrew Plantinga, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “The trend is toward more wildfires that burn larger areas and cause more damage.”

The number of acres burned per year has not only been increasing, the report found, it is also accelerating. And this increase isn’t only during the season’s peak, from June through October. The state is also seeing a longer fire season, with more acres burned in late fall than in the past. And while greater burn areas don’t automatically translate to greater damages, the researchers found that these, too, have been on the rise.

“I expected the recent severe fires to be outliers, and they are,” said Plantinga, “but it’s also clear that they represent part of a trend toward larger and more damaging fires.”

Cumulative WUI Acres Burned in California, 1979 – 2018

The report is part of a larger effort to estimate the costs associated with a business-as-usual approach to development in California, when considering the potential impacts of climate change. The team had previously found that interventions on natural and working lands — like forests, farms and rangelands — can contribute 2.5 times the emissions reductions by 2050 as residential and commercial sectors combined.

What’s more, for every dollar spent on implementing land-use strategies, close to fifty cents would be recouped in economic benefits. And that’s without accounting for other positive impacts, the previous report states.

California Civilian and Firefighter Deaths
Civilian and Firefighter Deaths on wildfires in California that occurred on State Responsibility Area lands, 1979 – 2017.
California Estimated Value of Structure Losses
Estimated Value of Structure Losses (in 2018 dollars) for State Responsibility Area Fires, by Year, 1979 – 2018.

Acres Burned by Month and Decade for all Fires in California

California Map of Structure Losses and Fire Perimeters
Map of Structure Losses and Fire Perimeters for State Responsibility Area Fires, 1979 – 2018.

Statements from five presidential candidates about wildland fire

They were asked about how to break the cycle of more severe weather, homes in fire-prone areas, and fire suppression that puts forests at greater risk for more catastrophic fires in the future

North Pole Fire South Dakota
Chain saw operator on the North Pole Fire west of Custer, SD March 10, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In an effort to provide for our readers information about positions the presidential candidates have taken on wildland fire issues, today we have the second article in the series. Earlier this month we searched the websites of the candidates and were able to find the issue addressed by only one, Mike Bloomberg, which we put in a February 15 article.

We wrote:

To be clear, Wildfire Today is not endorsing any candidates, but in an effort to inform voters we will be happy to write about all substantive written positions related to fire that are taken by presidential Candidates as long as they have more than 2 percent in a reliable nationwide poll on the election such as this one at fivethirtyeight.

We have already covered the incumbent’s plan, the proposed budget for next fiscal year.

After seeing that article one of our readers, Su Britting, informed us that she had seen a piece in the Desert Sun featuring the candidates’ responses to a fire-related question posed by a Research Scientist for the U.S. Forest Service who also teaches at the University of California at Davis.

Below is an excerpt from the article, used here with permission from Executive Editor Julie Makinen. The only part not included are a few introductory paragraphs written by the reporter, Sam Metz. The candidates’ statements in the Desert Sun article are included in their entirety.


…We enlisted Professor Malcolm North, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who also teaches at UC Davis, to ask the candidates running in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary a question about wildfire policy.

North wanted to see how candidates would balance California’s need for more housing with the hazards of building in wildfire-prone regions and how they’d address concerns surrounding fire suppression and its potential to exacerbate the problem. Each candidate was given the same set of questions to answer within a specific timeframe.  Some campaigns responded in the third person (e.g. “Senator Klobuchar believes …”) while other candidates responded themselves (e.g. “As president, I’ll invest …”). Candidates that are not featured did not provide a response.

Like most of the western United States, California’s wildfires are becoming more destructive with more severe weather, unchecked home building in fire-prone areas, and fire suppression that puts forests at greater risk for larger, more catastrophic fires in the future. As president, how would you do to help break this cycle for the sake of both people and ecosystems? — Malcolm North, Research Scientist, U.S. Forest Service, Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Elizabeth Warren: Climate change is an existential threat to all life on this planet — and Californians are already seeing the dangers of climate change first hand.  Elizabeth Warren is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution and has more than 10 climate plans that detail how a Warren administration will achieve domestic net zero emissions by 2030.

Wildfires pose an especially serious threat to low-income communities, people with disabilities, and seniors. That’s why Elizabeth has committed to:

  • Improving fire mapping and prevention by investing in advanced modeling with a focus on helping the most vulnerable — incorporating not only fire vulnerability but community demographics.
  • Prioritize these data to invest in land management, particularly near the most vulnerable communities, supporting forest restoration, lowering fire risk, and creating jobs all at once.
  • Invest in microgrid technology, so that we can de-energize high-risk areas when required without impacting the larger community’s energy supply.
  • Collaborate with Tribal governments on land management practices to reduce wildfires, including by incorporating traditional ecological practices and exploring co-management and the return of public resources to indigenous protection wherever possible.

She’s also committed to prioritizing at-risk populations in disaster planning and response and strengthening rules to require disaster response plans to uphold the rights of vulnerable populations. A Warren administration will center a right to return for individuals who have been displaced during a disaster and while relocation should be a last resort, when it occurs, she is committed to improving living standards and keeping communities together whenever possible.

Pete Buttigieg: California’s devastating wildfires are one example of the accelerated impacts of climate change. This is one of the most pressing security challenges of our era and it will absolutely be a top priority under my administration. To stem the impacts of climate change my administration will get our country to net-zero emissions no later than 2050, by implementing a bold and achievable Green New Deal. We will enact a price on carbon and use the revenue to send rebates directly to Americans’ pockets. We will also quadruple federal clean energy R&D funding to invest more than $200 billion in developing new technologies as well as create three investment funds to spur clean technology development and fund locally-led clean energy projects, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Promoting resilient infrastructure is crucial to preparing communities against climate change. The American Clean Energy Bank and Regional Resilience Hubs that I am proposing will finance local investments in resilient infrastructure. My administration will develop federal guidelines for investments in and implementation of new approaches, including nature-based solutions, that make our natural resources and communities safer and more resilient. We will also establish a National Catastrophic Extreme Weather Insurance (CEWI) program to provide stability to individuals and communities who experience the major disruptions caused by climate change and other natural risks such as earthquakes. We will build a resilient nation that can stand up to the extreme weather and sea level rise we are already facing, and lead the world in bringing our international partners and local leaders together to solve this crisis.

Tom Steyer: I began this campaign because despite several Democratic candidates talking about the climate crisis, the seriousness of the threat was not getting the attention it demanded.  I am the only candidate who will make addressing climate change my number one priority as President of the United States. Climate change doesn’t just represent a serious threat — it is also a great opportunity to build a sustainable American infrastructure and an economy that restores prosperity to all Americans, not just the wealthy. In order to break the cycle of the catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to build resilient infrastructure and a renewable economy. We also need to invest in individual ecosystems (forests, lakes, oceans) in the context of climate change. This will mean undoing the negligence of the Trump administration’s policies and creating collaboration between the states and the federal government to address the problems of designing, building and maintaining climate-resilient communities.

As part of my Justice Centered Climate Plan, I will invest nearly $500 billion in the upkeep and protection of our watersheds, wetlands, national parks, and forests — and this includes fire management as well as protecting our clean drinking water. Because while some of the impacts of climate change are already here, there are levelheaded preventative measures we can take to protect ourselves and our forests from the worst dangers. My plan puts $555 billion into developing climate-smart communities and housing and an additional $755 billion into adaptation, resilience, and green infrastructure. This will ensure that the people who are displaced from fires and flooding have affordable places to live with access to green space. And it will also ensure that they have good-paying jobs building our new climate-resilient infrastructure, protecting our lands and waters, and serving communities hit by the climate crisis as long-term disaster recovery workers.

Bernie Sanders: We’re already seeing the devastating effects of climate change. In California, 15 of the 20 largest fires in the state’s history have occurred since 2000. We must invest now in mitigating these more frequent and severe wildfires, making our infrastructure more resilient, and preparing for disaster response. We must change our framework of fire suppression and forest management to take the whole local ecosystem into account, including the rural communities who are most vulnerable.

In California, developers are building houses in fire hazard zones, a move partially driven by the housing shortage. Bernie is committed to fully closing the 7.4 million unit shortage of affordable housing to guarantee housing to all as a right. We will work to ensure housing growth is climate-resilient, with experts and impacted communities included every step of the way.

We’ll expand the wildfire restoration and disaster preparedness workforce. We’ll increase federal funding for firefighting by $18 billion to deal with the increased severity and frequency of wildfires. Furthermore, we must facilitate community evacuation plans that include people experiencing homelessness, and increase social cohesion for rapid and resilient disaster recovery to avoid the use of martial law and increased policing in disaster response.

We’ll also amend the Stafford Act to ensure that FEMA ensures that recovery and rebuilding efforts make affected communities stronger than they were before the disaster so they are more resilient to the next disaster.

Michael Bloomberg: First and most importantly, we’ve got to act aggressively to curb the carbon pollution and climate change that is like pouring accelerant on our western forests, making fires bigger and more catastrophic — this will be a top priority for my presidency. In addition, we’ve got to transition from the old fire suppression approach to managing our forests to restore healthy ecosystems that are inherently more resilient to catastrophic fire.

I’m calling for an effort on the scale of FDR’s response to the Dust Bowl, making this a top priority for the Forest Service. I will direct them to work with other federal land agencies, states, tribes, and local communities to develop a far-reaching fire prevention and management plan for each state at risk, aiming to reduce the loss of lives and property by half within four years.

California bans insurers from dropping policies in wildfire areas

It will apply for one year after the Governor declared a state of emergency

Glen Cove Fire
Glen Cove Fire south of south of Vallejo, California, northeast of the I-80 Carquinez Bridge, October 27, 2019. Photo by @arrowstewtoe.

The California Department of Insurance is invoking a law passed in 2018 that bans insurance companies from dropping or refusing to renew homeowners policies in zip codes within or adjacent to the perimeters of recent fires. This will apply for one year after the Governor declared a state of emergency in October, 2018 and will affect at least 800,000 homes in wildfire disaster areas in Northern and Southern California. The action by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is the result of Senate Bill 824 that he authored last year while serving as state senator.

In his announcement about the localized ban, the Commissioner went a step further and called on insurance companies to voluntarily cease all non-renewals related to wildfire risk statewide until December 5, 2020.

Many homeowners in California are finding that the premiums on their policies have doubled or tripled in the last two years, and insurance companies in some cases are canceling or refusing to renew policies on residences in areas where wildfires have occurred. California’s property insurers are beginning to retreat from areas they identify as having higher wildfire risk.

Local governments are concerned that this trend could disrupt local real estate markets and cause property values to decline, reducing tax revenue available for vital services to residents such as fire protection, community fire mitigation, law enforcement, road repairs, and hospitals.

The California Department of Insurance has identified some of the zip codes affected by the temporary ban on dropping or refusing to renew homeowners policies. The following fires with the affected zip codes are listed: Saddleridge, Eagle, Kincade, Tick, Getty, Hill, and Maria.

CAL FIRE has not yet provided the fire perimeter maps for the Water, 46, Hillside, Easy, Sky, and Glen Cove Fires, therefore the zip codes near these fires is not yet available.


Opinion: Could this be a tipping point?

I have wondered for years when the insurance companies were going to drastically raise their rates or refuse to issue policies in wildfire-prone areas. I figured that when it occurred it could be a tipping point that could lead to broad positive actions affecting the resiliency of communities at risk from wildfires. Either that, or those areas could experience significant outward migration of residents, causing economic disruption.

Fire-prone communities, if they are going to survive over the long term, have to learn to live with fire. Sticking their heads in the sand and thinking fires can’t happen to them is not recognizing reality.

Earlier this year I wrote an article about “Five things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities”. In areas where they are adopted insurance companies could recognize that homes would be less likely burn in a wildfire and adjust their rates accordingly.

Here are the broad areas that need to be considered:

  1. Home spacing and lot size
  2. Envelope of  the structure itself
  3. Home ignition zone
  4. Community infrastructure and planning
  5. Wildland-urban interface

The only effective way to ensure that residents understand and implement these five tasks is to make them mandatory by establishing Fire Codes at the local and state levels.

After the Tubbs Fire, homes in California town are being rebuilt without strong building codes

Above: Homes being rebuilt in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa. Screenshot from Sacramento Bee video.

In Santa Rosa, California the 1,200 homes that were destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs Fire are being rebuilt without a requirement that they adhere to the stricter building codes required in rural areas of California that would make them more resistant to being consumed in the next wildfire.

From the Sacramento Bee:

…Coffey Park [neighborhood] is rebuilding quickly: The community organization Coffey Strong says more than half of the 1,200 homes that burned down in 2017 are finished, and hundreds more are under construction.

But some wildfire experts wonder if Coffey Park isn’t courting danger by ignoring a state building code designed for wildfire-prone areas.

“They’re setting themselves up for the next disaster,” said Chris Dicus, a wildfire expert at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “I was disappointed to see they didn’t build up to code.”

Coffey Park residents seem resigned to the risk of another fire. They consider it part of the cost of living in a neighborhood they love. When asked about building codes, they say yes, another monster like the Tubbs Fire would be devastating — but no amount of fire-resistant roofing would likely change that.

“If it’s going to burn down, it’s going to burn down,” said Charlie Catlett, a retired physician who moved back home a little more than a week ago, after the latest evacuations were over.

Chapter 7A of the California Building Code designed for the state’s areas at high risk from wildfire can be optionally adopted by cities, but is mandatory in rural areas designated by CAL FIRE as being at high risk of wildfires. It lays out standards for roofs, exterior walls, vents in exterior walls and attics, windows, exterior doors, decking, and outbuildings.

Analysts studying the aftermath of the Camp Fire which destroyed much of Paradise, California found that homes built to fire-safe standards had a much higher survival rate than those that were not. Beginning in 2008 new construction in the city was required to follow Chapter 7A. Fifty-one percent of the homes built under that standard survived, while only eighteen percent built before 2008 did.

Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home.

Adopting sensible building codes is very important, but a holistic approach is required to keep from repeating wildfire disasters:

  1. Home spacing/ lot size
  2. Envelope of the structure itself
  3. Home ignition zone
  4. Community infrastructure and planning
  5. Wildland-urban interface

In April, 2019, we covered these five categories in more detail.

Communities in Oregon and Washington most threatened by wildfire identified

After assessing the exposure to wildfire of communities across the Pacific Northwest Region, Oregon and Washington, the 50 most-threatened communities in each state were identified.

In the broadest sense, wildfire exposure encompasses the likelihood of wildfire burning a given location on the landscape, and the potential intensity of a wildfire if one were to occur. For this assessment the researchers focused only on wildfire likelihood because the effect of fire intensity on home loss rate is not well studied, and because the inclusion of intensity for this and similar assessments did not influence the conclusions. Wildfire likelihood is measured by annual burn probability, a measure generated by comprehensive simulation of wildfire occurrence and spread (see section below on Wildfire hazard simulations).

Washington Oregon communities exposed wildfire

Oregon top 10 wildfire exposed communities
The 10 communities in Washington with greatest cumulative housing-unit exposure to wildfire. The “mean of exposed housing units” rank indicates the mean (typical) burn probability of housing units within each community.

Oregon top 10 wildfire exposed communities
The 10 communities in Oregon with greatest cumulative housing-unit exposure to wildfire. The
“mean of exposed housing units” rank indicates the mean (typical) burn probability of housing units within each community.

The research was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service’s Northwest Region.

More details, including lists of the 50 most threatened communities in both Oregon and Washington, can be found here.