Editor’s Note: Alice Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and previously served as senior director for resilience policy in the Obama White House. She is also a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, as well as the co-author of “Building a Resilient Tomorrow.” The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
“We will rebuild.” That’s the vow that Americans have come to expect from victims of disaster. It’s what the homeowners of Talent, Oregon, promised to do after last month’s catastrophic wildfires torched their houses. It’s what the town leaders of Paradise, California, vowed after the Camp Fire in 2018 killed at least 85 people and destroyed about 90% of the town’s structures.
It’s a natural reaction. And it’s one that inspires. But it’s also a perilous one that doesn’t address root causes. A resolution to put everything back just as it was could end up locking in future loss of life and property.
America knows about wildfires. When Spanish conquistadors first glimpsed the Los Angeles coast in 1542 they named the area “Bay of Smoke” for the pall of wildfire smoke that clung to the land. But the nature of fires has changed dramatically. Since the 1990s, fires have burned for twice as long, and the number of acres burned per fire has doubled in the United States.
Fires have grown bigger, deadlier, and more destructive. And in the coming decades, the nation will surely see even worse. Why? Climate change, fire suppression efforts, and the increasing number of Americans that have moved into fire-prone areas are to blame.
Scientists say climate change has caused a global increase in the frequency and severity of weather that raises the risk of wildfire. Climate change has brought higher temperatures and deeper droughts. Drought, combined with insect outbreaks (also likely linked to climate change), killed nearly 130 million trees in California from 2010 to 2017. Dried or dead vegetation ignites more easily. These conditions prime the landscape to burn.
Adding to the risk is the federal government’s efforts to suppress fires, which date back more than a century. These efforts cause forests to become dense with highly flammable vegetation, leading to the wildfire paradox – suppression in the end leads to even bigger, more severe wildfires, which can cause increased loss of lives and property.
Americans have also increasingly been moving next to – or within – forests and grasslands, an area known as the wildland-urban-interface (WUI). Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that in the past two dozen years 1 million homes fell within the boundaries of wildfires. During that same time period, fires had come within a kilometer of 59 million homes across the country. Despite the growing fire risk in the WUI, local officials have continued to permit more development, often citing the need for affordable housing. But situating those developments that are built to house lower-income people in the WUI puts the people living there at higher risk, including for homelessness when their affordable houses burn to the ground.
The risk of fires also increases simply because more humans living in wildlands brings more human activities, like equipment use, debris burning, arson and gender-reveal parties. All of these have started many of the wildfires that have threatened homes in the US in recent years.
If Americans want to reduce the risks of climate-worsened wildfires, everything – from land use to building codes and fire prevention – has to be reevaluated. State and local governments make almost all of the decisions regarding whether to erect new developments, or rebuild ones that have already been destroyed by fires.
Can more stringent building codes help? In 2008, the state of California adopted a new wildfire building code for new construction in high fire-risk areas. The 2018 Camp fire provided a test for the new code. Only 18% of the houses built before the 2008 codes escaped damage, compared with 50% of the houses built after 2008, according to a McClatchy analysis. This is no doubt a major improvement, but not one that will let homeowners rest easy at night with fire risk on the rise. In fact, a recent analysis of some areas that burned in Australia earlier this year revealed that “once a building catches fire, regardless of construction, it will likely be totally destroyed.”
Land use plays an important role in reducing fire risk. That’s what the Royal Commission investigating Australia’s monstrous 2019-2020 Black Summer fires found in its interim report. It’s also what the team that California Gov. Gavin Newsom assembled to investigate the fires of 2017 and 2018 concluded. A major reinsurance company reached a similar conclusion about the growing fire risk. But tens of millions of Americans continue to move into wildlands primed for wildfire.
Insurers have a history of leaving markets when the risks are too high. Some tried to drop coverage for homeowners after the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons in California, but the state forced insurance companies to renew policies on homes in impacted areas with a one-year moratorium that is set to end in December 2020.
Private insurers refused to cover homeowners after a series of devastating floods, prompting the federal government to create its own flood insurance program in the 1960s. Five decades later, the National Flood Insurance Program is in debt to the tune of $20.5 billion, even after Congress canceled $16 billion in debt in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Congress has found it politically impossible to staunch the bleeding since, among other things, it would require charging rates that reflected the true risk of living in high-flood areas. A reform effort in 2012 failed spectacularly when homeowners realized how much they would need to pay.
Some have urged the federal government to consider repeating this experiment with wildfires. Doing so, however, carries the same potential to drain federal coffers while failing to address the root causes. Rather than offering insurance, the federal government needs to work with state and local officials to help communities understand how they can build and rebuild in ways that better address the growing wildfire threat through improved land use, construction, and fire-risk management.
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That means determining if current building standards will yield structures capable of withstanding hotter and bigger fires and whether new construction should occur at all in areas – like steep slopes – that are likely to burn again. They will also need to assess how they can reduce overall fire risk by clearing brush and creating fire breaks that can stop the spread of fires as well as creating more defensible space that keeps flammable material away from buildings. And, even if they do everything right, they need to consider whether homeowners will continue to have access to affordable insurance in the future.
To avoid locking in increased fire risk, local officials need to resist the instinct to put their beloved communities back together just as they were. They need to plan for climate-worsened fires and address the root underlying causes – if they don’t, these fires could cause more financial losses and deaths, including those of firefighters.