Californians unwilling to subsidize land owners’ wildfire prevention, Stanford poll finds

02 November 2019

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USA – Years of devastating, back-to-back wildfires coupled with recent power shutdowns have not convinced Californians to fund wildfire prevention on behalf of at-risk homeowners and businesses, a new poll by Stanford University researchers has found.

Nor do they support mandatory relocation of at-risk communities, even though one-quarter of those surveyed have been directly affected by wildfires or who know someone who has been in the past year.

The survey sought to understand public support for potential wildfire policies and was conducted by Bruce Cain, a professor of political science and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and Iris Hui, a senior researcher at the Center. The poll sampled 3,000 people in the country’s western states, including 1,046 respondents living in California. Residents in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho and Nevada were among those polled.

The survey took place between Aug. 25 and Sept. 6, 2019, and looked attitudes towards policies addressing safety and personal property. The data was publicly released on Oct. 30.

One quarter of the Californians surveyed said they or someone they knew had experienced a wildfire personally in the past 12 months.

About 52% said they experienced smoke from wildfires in the past 12 months, about the same percentage as those respondents in the other western states.

Roughly half of Californians who experienced smoke from wildfires said they took precautions. Most, 79%, followed air-quality reports and 83% stayed indoors. Only 28% wore recommended N95/P100 respirators, 35% wore a dust, paper or cloth mask, 30% used an air purifier and 18% left town. About 9% consulted a health care provider, the survey found.

A majority of California respondents, 55%, favored requiring property owners to undertake prescriptive burns and other measures to limit possible fuel for wildfires, such as removing brush.

Nearly two thirds — 62% — favor enacting government policies to ban people from living in fire-prone areas, and 60% would ban commercial enterprises in such areas. But only about one-third, 36%, support requiring property owners to buy wildfire insurance.

Fewer respondents, 28%, want the government to force people to move out of wildfire-prone areas. Only 22% believe owners should be prevented from rebuilding homes after losing them in a wildfire.

The researchers found that no majority of respondents favors any measure involving tax-payer-funded subsidies for those owning property in fire-prone areas. About 48% are open to subsidizing home upgrades. Only 41% would support partially paying for people’s wildfire insurance, although that support rose to more than 50% if the subsidies are given to low-income residents in fire-prone areas.

Only a third of respondents support subsidizing protective upgrades and insurance for commercial properties, however.

The survey found only 28% support subsidizing the costs of “managed retreat” and relocation or for buyouts for either home or commercial properties, even for low-income individuals, a strategy being floated for communities facing significant environmental disasters and climate change.

“In short, there is still resistance to doing much more than requiring property owners to take steps to better protect their properties and some restrictions in development in wildfire prone areas, but they are reluctant to force or spend money to induce property owners to move out of harm’s way,” the researchers said.

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