Scientists Want New Framework for Understanding California Wildfire Costs, Risks

October 29, 2020

A new report out shows challenges current fire management policies in California, proposes a new framework for understanding the total cost of wildfire in the state and suggests that health impacts from smoke my represent substantial costs that are not yet fully understood.

The California Council on Science and Technology ‘s report, “The Costs of Wildfire in California: An Independent Review of Scientific and Technical Information,” makes an urgent call for a more systematic assessment of wildfire costs to the state. CCST is a nonprofit established by state Legislature to provide advice from California’s scientists and research institutions.

The report comes amid another severe wildfire season for the state, which prompted a call earlier this month from California’s insurance commissioner to step up efforts to protect the state’s residents from wildfires and address a pullback of private insurers from the state’s riskiest areas.

More than 5,600 firefighters are currently battling 22 wildfires in California, with 4.1 million acres burned, 31 dead and 10,488 structures destroyed this year, CalFire’s latest report shows.

Five of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020, according to CalFire.

A recent report from CoreLogic shows California his home to 76% of the residences on the top 10 list of homes at elevated risk of wildfire.

The report’s authors call attention to that danger and the state’s worsening wildfire crisis.

“Although wildfires are a natural and integral part of California’s landscape, the record-breaking losses of the past several years have illustrated the increasing destruction and complexity of fire disasters, and have highlighted tensions between short-term responses focused on firefighting and longer-term strategies required to strengthen mitigation and resilience,” the report states. “Absent a reorientation of California’s approach to wildfire, these alarming trends are likely to worsen. However, there are important steps California can take as a state to minimize the destructiveness of wildfires and their attendant costs.”

The report makes several recommendations:

  • Policymakers must remain attuned to how climate change, land use change, and other human impacts may impact wildfire differently across the diverse regions of the state.
  • The state should create a comprehensive public accounting of relevant programs to better understand the costs of wildfire mitigation activities.
  • The state should consider supporting necessary research to fully assess the cost-effectiveness of prevention and mitigation activities. The research will provide an opportunity to compare these investments to costs of suppression and the losses incurred as a result of wildfire.
  • The state should evaluate land use planning and urban development as an alternative strategy for preventing structure loss and increased ignitions in wildland areas.
  • To understand the full costs of wildfire and the potential public health benefits of mitigation activities, as well as the tradeoffs associated with prescribed fire, the state should create a program to systematically track public health impacts from wildfire smoke, especially for vulnerable populations.
  • California should create and manage a systematic, comprehensive data clearinghouse for wildfire events including wildfire smoke, prevention and mitigation, losses including health, societal and ecological impacts, and associated costs.

“Wildfire is a challenge that is not going away for California. Indeed, absent change in policy, climate change is likely to worsen the problem,” the report states. “California policymakers should be considering the balance of investment in prevention and suppression that makes the most sense for the people of California, its environment, and its economy. Today, policymakers attempt to strike that balance without complete information about the overall costs to society or of how alterations to California’s fire management approach might impact total societal costs.”

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