To Prevent California Wildfires, We Need to Have Some Uncomfortable Conversations

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The alarming wildfires across the West have got people thinking, once again, how to prevent or at least minimize the catastrophic fire seasons we've been experiencing. KQED science reporters Danielle Venton and Molly Peterson talked with KQED radio host Brian Watt last week about what the state is and isn't doing to lower fire risk and minimize the destruction caused by large fires. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been reporting for a while on some of the possible solutions to California's wildfire problem, like prescribed burns ...

Molly Peterson: Right, the idea that we plan to put fire on the land safely [with the intent of burning up in advance the vegetation wildfires use for fuel.] I have reported from Trinity County about people who want to do that, but they run into bureaucratic obstacles, and I've reported about the technical and safety reasons these burns get delayed.

Danielle Venton: We have also talked about how to make buildings less flammable, and about clearing space around them to slow an advancing fire.

But you've talked about these things for years, and it feels like not as much of it's getting done as we need.

Venton: That's exactly the problem. One example: In the early 2000s, up until 2017, an average of just 13,000 acres were intentionally burned in the state every year. In 2018, new laws were passed to try to make prescribed burns easier, and 87,000 acres were burned that year. But scientists believe we need to increase that amount by at least five times. So there's a long way to go.

Peterson: Another example: In 2008, lawmakers passed this transformative set of requirements that has saved houses from big fires in Santa Rosa and Paradise. But 12 years later, houses built before that law still sit in the path of these monster fires, and we're still not doing for fires what we do for earthquake risk, which is expand requirements and spend money on retrofitting.

Venton: Overall, we do see the state spending more money on fires, but experts say it's not enough to do what they recommend. And it's a sign that we're not changing our mindset about fires dramatically enough.


So what is the state doing?

Peterson: The ideas for legislation have fallen into a few categories. One big one is tightening requirements on new buildings and raising money for fixing old ones, and another is improving how we estimate and plan for risk in wildfire zones.

Venton: Several bills worth mentioning have arrived on the governor's desk in the past week. One requires ember-resistant zones around homes in high fire-risk areas. Another requires Cal Fire to develop a model to better estimate the wildfire risk for communities in the wildland-urban interface.

Peterson: Laws to tighten accountability for planning are also on the agenda. On the governor's desk right now is a bill from Santa Barbara state Sen. Hannah Beth-Jackson, SB182. If it becomes law, it would limit how local government can approve development in very-high-risk fire zones, depending on how fire risk is managed.

"Too many lives have been lost," Jackson has said. "Too many communities have been left behind by these deadly wildfires to allow us to continue with business as usual in California."

She says a lot of communities are making decisions on their own right now, and what she's advocating for are consistent statewide standards.

While that bill's on the governor's desk, overall it seems like the state of California is still deciding whose responsibility it is to be ready for fire. 

Let's talk about what's not being talked about. What's missing from the conversation?

Peterson: I think what's missing is we get hung up on talking about these really specific details, and we often don't talk about the whole picture, the causes and the solutions.

Venton: Something I've been frustrated by is this polarization of whether it's climate change or forest management that's causing these catastrophic fires. It's both, of course, and more. Focusing on this debate means that we're not doing the important things, like adapting to climate change and finding a way to live with fire.

Peterson: I'm a fourth-generation Californian, but I used to live in Louisiana, after Katrina. After that, I can't help but wonder whether we should talk about not living in some places.

Even if we do everything that the scientists advise us to like UC Santa Barbara's Max Moritz talks about putting firebreaks and vegetation around communities and the wildland urban areas, and spending all this money to harden homes are there places in the state that we shouldn't live, for our own safety? I don't know the answer to that. Even asking the question is something you're not supposed to do.

Venton: And I think we really need to reconsider the balance of responsibility in this state. A huge weight is put on local authorities, who are often asked to do more and more by the state and by the public without additional funding. Local authorities then sometimes say it's got to be neighbors helping neighbors during rough times, and some people, especially the vulnerable, get left out.

Peterson: Everyone in California has property rights. To really understand property rights, though, we also have to report on how much it costs to defend property and how much it costs to insure it and how some of those costs are shared by the public.

Venton: In the end, this is all about compromise and trade-offs. To give a specific example, people frequently complain about smoke in the air due to managed burns, but we know that this smoke is less intense, less toxic and easier to manage than out-of-control fires, like the ones we've been seeing in the Bay Area.

Venton: I think the biggest thing we don't talk about is giving up local control. Wildfires are effectively a statewide problem, and often that requires statewide solutions, like the ones we've adopted for earthquake risk.

Peterson: And when we don't talk publicly about whether to do things locally or at the state level, those decisions are getting made in private markets by insurers. So not talking about the decision is still basically making a decision.