Learning to Live in Wildfire Country
The views contained in this piece are those of the author and STRATA and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
By Devin Stein
Fighting wildfires in the Western United States may be making the very people we want to protect worse off. A better policy would not only protect people from fires but also make homeowners more aware of the hazards and how to mitigate them. By fighting all fires that threaten people for free, state and federal firefighters may actually be increasing the long-term impacts of wildfires by hiding the true cost of living in disaster-prone areas.
Government-managed firefighters are freely provided to millions of Americans living in areas at high-risk of wildfires. Some 50 to 95 percent of the cost for Forest Service fire fighting is attributed to protecting homes, which means there are clear beneficiaries for wildfire suppression.1 Government firefighters are therefore providing homeowners with an often-overlooked subsidy. Many of these fires start on public lands managed by federal agencies, so it makes sense that we want to hold these agencies accountable for what starts on their land. But when the Forest Service or CalFire (California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) focus primarily on protecting homes, it becomes cheaper, easier, and more attractive to live in areas that might otherwise be too remote and dangerous to live in.
Local communities have an important role in managing wildfire hazards, but often do little to address the problem. These communities receive more tax revenues with new home developments, without having to worry about the cost of fire protection. If these communities could not rely on government firefighters, it would be much riskier and more expensive to develop high-risk areas. Even if local governments did continue allowing developments in these areas because people value the scenic and recreational benefits, people would be more motivated to reduce the risk of their homes burning. There are a number of precautions that can be taken to adapt communities to wildfires, including using fire-resistant materials, creating “fuel breaks” where fires run out of material to burn before getting to developed areas, or increasing home density to lower the per-household protection cost (it is much easier to protect 5 homes per acre than it is to protect a home every 5 acres).2
If policymakers want to protect these communities throughout the west, they need to reconsider the policies that encourage development in these high-risk areas. One potential solution is to create better cost-sharing agreements so that the communities benefiting from state and federal firefighting are held more accountable for their development decisions. Federal agencies could still provide the bulk of the funding, but over time communities could be held liable for more of the cost of deploying firefighters. This would also encourage communities to find ways to invest in fire avoidance to avoid costly suppression.
Another option is to encourage insurance companies to take a more active role in deciding which areas are reasonable to ensure, and which require larger premiums or other preventative maintenance. Last year’s fires in California took a large toll on the insurance industry, which now faces more than $12 billion in claims.3 Many homeowners are seeing higher premiums or are being denied coverage because of the inherent risk of where they live.4 But insurance companies could make it clearer whether insurers will be paid the full cost of rebuilding, or if they need additional coverage. These same insurance companies can also enact fire-safe building requirements for properties in high-risk areas, or use private contractors for creating safer spaces and protecting high-valued homes in the event of a wildfire.5 State-level policies like California’s FAIR plan, however, provide alternative mechanisms for homeowners to get insured when the market deems their homes to be uninsurable.6 This adds to the problem by creating an additional subsidy for people to live in dangerous areas without taking avoidance precautions.
People living in high-risk areas are stuck in a tough situation. Many cannot afford to relocate and are risking their lives and property by relying on state and federal firefighters to protect them when needed. The wildfire problem is growing worse, however, suggesting individual homeowners and local governments need to address the risk and true cost of living in such dangerous areas. If the cost of living in high-risk areas more closely resembled the cost of managing wildfires, Americans could become better protected from wildfires in the long-term.
Farmers Insurance. 2018. “Protecting Your Home Against Wildfires : Farmers Insurance.” Farmers.Com. 2018. https://www.farmers.com/catastrophe/wildfire-defense/.; Baylis, Patrick, and Judson Boomhower. 2018. “Moral Hazard, Wildfires, and the Economic Incidence of Natural Disasters.” Stanford.Edu 20 (5): 662–64. https://doi.org/10.1017/cem.2018.445. ↩
Associated Press. 2019. “Insurance Claims from November’s Deadly California Fires Top $12 Billion.” Latimes.Com. Los Angeles Times. May 8, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-california-wildfire-losses-20190508-story.html. ↩
Friedman, Nicole. 2019. “California Homeowners Face Higher Prices for a Scarce Commodity: Wildfire Insurance.” WSJ. Wall Street Journal. February 10, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/california-homeowners-face-higher-prices-for-a-scarce-commodity-wildfire-insurance-11549803600?ns=prod/accounts-wsj. ↩
Guzman, Dianne de. 2018. “How to Hire Private Firefighters to Protect Your Home from Wildfires (Even If You’re Not Rich).” SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle. December 6, 2018. https://www.sfgate.com/california-wildfires/article/Insurance-private-firefighters-crew-rich-USAA-Chub-13409876.php. ↩