Study of California wildfire costs suggests need for better tracking by state

30 October 2020

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CHICO — The costs of wildfire damage in California have become almost impossible to fully quantify, and a report from a nonprofit reviewing public data recommends new approaches for the state’s mitigation and tracking efforts.

Butte County became known in just a few hours on Nov. 8, 2018 for one of the most deadly and most destructive wildfires in state history. According to a new report from the nonprofit California Council on Science and Technology released Thursday, such destructive wildfires like the Camp Fire are demonstrating a need for the state to better track and analyze the multiple costs of wildfires, to mitigate their effects and prevent costly destruction.

Insured costs such as damage reports released from PG&E are tracked by the state but it is estimated that billions of dollars in damage may not be accounted for, according to non-profit California Council on Science and Technology. (California Council on Science and Technology — Contributed

Michael Wara, PhD. and chair of the council’s steering committee at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment said Thursday, “We’re seeing fires burn in California that are unrecognizable in their ferocity and intensity in their rate of spread and destructiveness… and they’re causing a much larger disruption to the state of California than really ever before.”

All information for the report came from public sources and was peer reviewed, regarding wildfire losses and associated costs with a proposed framework for understanding all costs of wildfire in California.

Gaps in costs

Much of the council’s report focuses on what can be proved by public records about the multiple layers of cost caused by wildfires, while shedding light on gaps in data making it difficult to calculate other costs, such as impacts on statewide public health.

For example, while the state reports insured costs and calculations of damage like clean ups recorded by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, there are many gaps in calculating uninsured damage and other untracked damage costs. These can include ongoing damage to ecosystems, researcher Teresa Feo added.

Climate change is an increasingly important factor that amplifies these impacts, and the report recommends the state address wildfire policy with  ecological and regional contexts in mind rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach across the state.

That would require policymakers to track how climate change, land use and other human impacts may affect wildfire differently across diverse regions of the state, Wara said. An effective plan of response must acknowledge the differences between fires in the Sierra Buttes versus Southern California forests, coastal regions and Central California valleys, for example, he added.

Researchers also found the scale, cost and cost-effectiveness of wildfire mitigation measures like defensible space and vegetation management are not systematically tracked by the state. The report recommends creating a comprehensive public database in order to better understand the costs of mitigation activities, supporting research to assess cost effectiveness as well.

Local impacts

The council also recommended the state evaluate land use planning and urban development as an alternative strategy for preventing structure loss and increased ignitions in wild land areas, Wara said.

Otherwise, more “out-migration” from areas of wildfire is likely to increase. The study noted researchers at Chico State analyzed change of address forms for approximately one-third of 37,198 individuals living in the Camp Fire footprint, the report noted.

More than 50% of Butte County’s elderly population (65 or older) that changed their address moved more than 30 miles away from their previous address, but the rates were much lower for other age groups. Households with lower incomes and new addresses seemed more likely to move, and move further away, from their prior residence than more affluent households.

Public health impacts from wildfire, including pulmonary and cardiovascular damage from wildfire smoke (“the most significant cause of morbidity and mortality”) are likely to be significantly underestimated. Wara referenced many days of toxic wildfire smoke from the Camp Fire which impacted most regions of the state in 2018, the effects of which are still being analyzed.

The council recommended a statewide system for better tracking public health impacts from wildfire smoke, especially for vulnerable populations, although Wara noted the work by the California Air Resources Board on this initiative.

Other costs to health will be harder to address in the long term, such as contamination of water due to fire. Benzene, which contaminated drinking water systems following the Tubbs and Camp Fires, can cause nausea and dizziness and is a known carcinogenic increasing the risk of blood cancers with sustained exposure. Local costs are often associated with the response to protect health — following the Camp Fire, bottled water was provided to citizens whose water supply was contaminated with benzene, a cost taken by the Paradise Irrigation District.

Need for better tracking

The results of the report suggested opportunities to improve effectiveness of public health responses as well as wildfire management in California, and how to create a comprehensive framework to assess all costs. The report recommends California create a comprehensive data platform for wildfire events including wildfire smoke, prevention and mitigation, tracking losses including health, societal and ecological impacts — using existing models like CalEnviroScreen and the California Open and Transparent Water Data Platform.

Will these suggestions be welcomed by policymakers? Some local grassroots projects are moving forward in areas affected by wildfire, until the county and state can take over. For example, the Bear Fire Restoration Project, an offshoot of the Camp Fire EcoRestoration project, has received its own Governor’s Office of Emergency Services grant to mitigate toxic runoff in watersheds after wildfires.

Indeed, Wara cited the Camp Fire as an example of a catastrophe where the costs of structure losses and losses of life are known, but other effects like land damage and smoke impacts are still unknown — and research on the county’s ecological impacts has not been completed.

While a broader legislative framework is developed for addressing these impacts, “I think this report does provide a really important framework for understanding how to think about the costs of wildfire … and to understand the numbers we do know,” Wara said.

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