California Wildfires: What Will It Take to Prevent the Next Disaster?

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Podcast is brought to you by knowledge award. Well, wildfires are raging in both the northern and southern parts of California right now, most of the city of paradise California in the northern part of the state was destroyed by the so-called campfire at least twenty nine people have died and more than two hundred people are missing from that one the Wolsey fire in southern California's destroyed mansions in Malibu as well as suburban areas killing at least to the wildfires. Have led to red flag warnings being posted from the Oregon line all the way down to San Diego, meaning conditions are right for further. Fires California, of course, has been dealing with deadly and destructive wildfires for many years now in part due to the drought that the state has been dealing with for some time. Howard Reuther is professor of decision sciences and policy as well as co director of the risk management and decision processes center here at the warden school. He joins us on the phone as this kief Gillis. Sue is a professor in Dina Barra's of the college of. Natural resources at the university of California at Berkeley, Howard key. Thank you for your time today. Both of you. So key foot start with you. And if you can I guess give us a little bit of a status report on these two fires, and what we are looking at in terms of of the damage in the and the the impact on a lot of these communities. Well, the status they're still both very active incidents and while fire services making some headway on control on both fires, especially the the campfire Darryl long way from being under control Howard. What has been your reaction to everything that we've seen here in the last in the last few days? Well, I think that this raises so many issues in terms of how we can reduce the consequences of these wildfires. It's just another example that obviously California is struggling with us Keith undoubtedly knows better than I do. And we need to figure out ways that we can really take steps we meeting the state of California ensures and utilities and others who are all involved. And obviously the residents of the area to reduce these losses in the future. And this just highlights that point key. You. Probably know that as much as anybody being out there in California. What basically is the status of that type of relationship with all the different entities out there in California. It's a very active one. You know, we're we're doing the obvious things you might think in fire prone area. Cal fire is making big investments in increasing its air fleet. For instance, they're picking up a lot of military C one thirty aircraft to uses suppression drops and they're also upgrading their helicopter fleet. But there's a lot of the stuff that's before suppression that we're actively pushing the fire wise USA program where the third largest number of communities engaged in that program of the national fire protection association in the country. Colorado's number one for same reasons that we care about this in California. We're rapidly investing in personnel and procedures to certify the safety elements for all the cities and counties. We have both staff. Half at the state board of forestry and fire protection, which I chair and a large number of pre-fire engineers working at Cal fire that are going through county by county city by city and looking at their compliance with the public regulatory code on all these things in terms of their road networks cited access to water. You know, we know the things that you have to work on and and we're working on that a lot of investment in the science of stoning hazards across the state and using those to come back and say how how nuanced should the local protection measures be and we're we're doing about a quarter of a million defensible. Inspections across the state now with money that's come out of the state. So that we can actually look at all the properties in the state responsibility area on something like the cycle that homeowner would need to be maintaining vegetation around their home in order to increase the fire resilience of property. You mentioned we're we're working on it. You mentioned the the inspections which I find is is an interesting piece to us. I if you can for everybody listening around the country, explain what that process is. And how frequently it is actually going on right now out in California to look at these properties. And look exactly what he's either contributing or not contributing to a potential wildfire. Right. I think at this point we have the personnel in the funding to where we're looking at homes in these areas that are fire prone on a three to five year cycle. And you know, you go out there, you're looking at the vegetation management. Hundred feet of the property, and you're with variety things that you want to look at you know, how much fuel is on the ground. Are you managing the tree? So that you've got a little separation between the canopies is there any overhang on the roofs. But also looking at what can you do to harden the structure, there's some things like would Rouf's which are a real risk factor. You know, we're in many of these areas if you're going to replace the roof at the end of his life, it's not going to necessarily be with what was there before? And then other things like closing boxing in the eaves moving firewood away from the home. There's there's a lot of things you can do to both manage the fuel around the home, but also hardened the home. So that it's consort of passively resist ignitions, and that's really important these wind driven fires because they're throwing embers which can ignite a roof half-mile ra- mile in advance. Chance of the fi the flaming front of the fire. When you've got a fifty sixty mile an hour wind it can really toss those those firebrands so Howard. It sounds like there's an element of innovation here that that's included in this as well. Because of the fact that we are also trying to adapt the homes that are in these areas to better be able to deal with the the level of fire that we're now seeing which is obviously more frequent the majority of the bigger storms have occurred in the last or should say wildfires have occurred in the last decade or so, well, no there's no question. I think that what Keith is indicating is a way to go in the sense of recognizing that these homes have to be better as on the rue certainly can be better. They could be fireproof where they may not be today. They're awa-. There's vegetation that could be possibly dealt with in a way to reduce the likelihood of the spread of fire. But here's the real challenge of the challenge. I think is how do you get homeowners to do this? And one of the reasons that it's a challenge is that a homeowner could say, look, I may do all of these things. But then there's going to be a fire from my neighbor that is going to spread to my house, and I'm still going to be in in trouble afterwards. So it isn't just myself that's affected, but it's all these others around the interdependency and interconnectedness of wildfires makes it really hard. And so I think we are we have to ask the question is it important to have a better building code in these areas regulations. The inspections are going to be critical as a part of that to make sure that homeowners have done that you also could have the state or some source giving loans low interest loans or possibly supporting even grants to help the homeowners do that. But at the end of the day, it isn't just the homeowners. It is other other parts of you know, that in fact, the the notion of development in areas, so there's less forest and more vegetation. And how do you clean that up? So. Oh, it's a challenge. I think that has to be looked at not only as I said from how from the residents, but also the utilities will have to play a role here and the insurance play a role in terms of cleaning things up and making things the more or less likely to spread from one area to another Howard. Joining us on the phone. He is with the Wharton school, Keith Gillis. Also with us from the university of California, Berkeley, you're listening to knowledge a near on Sirius XM one thirty two business radio powered by the school. So how'd you mentioned the insurance industry? And I find it interesting that this is something that obviously is is tacking on hundreds of millions of dollars of cost onto the insurance industry every year at this point. And they are in what you have told me in the past. They are the ones that end up paying out the cost of this. Because of the fact that these are like fires like any fire. A homeowner would have to deal with whether it would be something that occurred in the oven that you know, that spurred a fire. Are of some kind. Well, it is certainly true as you said, Dan that homeowners policies if you have a an insurance policy as most homeowners do if they have a mortgage will cover fire from any source in wildfires or part of that. Here's a challenge, I think not only for the insurance industry, but for the utilities as well. The insurance will have to pay for the losses to the houses that they've insured not necessarily to any other house, but certainly to their to their residents, but they may also then find themselves in a position where they feel maybe they shouldn't be paying that. And they have the opportunity to use a technical term to subrogate to say we're going to ask the utilities to pay for this because they may be the cause of the fire in the first place. And so there's a very interesting challenge here between insurers and utilities in terms of who should be paying at the end of the day. California has. A law and Keith can comment on this as well on inverse condemnation that says it if if you can show that the utilize have caused the fire then then they may be the ones who have to be responsible for paying at the end of the day. And that is an interesting issue, and I'll just raise one last point on that the utilities may still have to pay even if they followed all the regulations and standards. But let's say a tree is blown down and destroys power line. The has been meant meeting all these standards may still be responsible in California because of this law. So there are some interesting issues a warden center spending some time looking at them, but I'll just put them on the table for Keats possibly comment or you may wanna pursue this in some other direction. I mean, if memory serves me last year, one of the fires that occurred out in California. There was a question of whether or not that was the responsibility of utility. Because from what I understand did not start with a power line. Correct. Actually utilities have been the cause of a number of large. Fires and a fair number of the ones we had in our firestorm last year. Trace back to utilities, I think the. The interesting thing about our inverse condemnation, which is an unusual procedure as Howard says, even if you're in compliance with the directives on vegetation clearance that come out from the California Public utilities commission or from the board of forestry and fire protection. If afire results from not a failure on your part to follow regulations in terms of safety. But simply your Queant is involved a ninety mile an hour. Wind takes a huge branch. Throws it into a power line starts fire. You have the right clearance. You've been doing your job. But the untilities was still the source of the ignition that, you are liable and that create something which I I'm sure we'll be adjudicated over years in terms of what the liability to the utilities will be our legis. Slater took this issue up. But didn't reach really a final decision as to whether or not the existing law should be modified significantly or not. It's it's a big issue. And I I'm not sure that ratepayers fully understand under a regulated utility what the implications of that liability could be for them. We're joined here on the phone by Keith Gillis to the university of California Berkeley, along with Howard con Reuther of the Wharton school your comments at eight four four Warton eight four four nine four two seven eight six or if he can't get your phone. You can send us a comment on Twitter app is radio one thirty two or my Twitter account, which is at Dan looney Twenty-one how much Howard do the citizens themselves have to be aware of what is going on right now and be able to potentially factor into the to the to the to fixing some of these problems out there. Well, I think this is of course, a really challenging question. Because I think most times of people don't want to think about something like a wildfire. I think today they're thinking a lot more about them. Because of just exactly what's happening in California. I think the other part of it is something that cases mentioned in his earlier comments. What can they do to reduce that risk? And will they do it? And so there's a real challenge, I think first of all and making them aware. But I think that really it's also a community problem. I think that to some extent building codes are local and communities can try to take some steps if the community plays a role by letting all the homeowners know, how how integrate you know, how interconnected all of this is and what each of them can do and possibly can help them along and possibly through some regulations and standards can require them to do it. It's a really challenging issue when people have to shell out money. To try to make their house safer at are asking themselves is that money really doing the trick. Because they know that it could the fire could spread for elsewhere. And so I think that it does require the state to play a more creative role local communities play a role, and obviously bring the citizens in the homeowners into the picture. So that's, but I don't think it's easy. And I think a case you probably know this better certainly than I do in living in California to get people to be aware. And then to get them to do the things we'd like them to do and to get the state to do what it has to do. Yeah. It's it's a it's a really interesting problem where there's homeowner action. Unlike a lot of other natural hazards, we've been hitting so many fires in California that people's reaction now to wildfire is a risk is a little different than someone that might live in a flood plain or might live in an area. That's a fault line where earthquakes, you know, may happen. That are significant on a fifty to one hundred year cycle your experiences and individual with a natural hazard, really conditions. Your thought process in the actions that you're willing to take to deal with it. And at times the right way to get the decision making in along the lines that's useful for us as a society as a whole there's a high level sort of policy that would have to be put in saying, well, exactly how much of a feedback loop. Are we going to look for between insurers with respect to this risk and the actions that might be taken by communities, or by individuals, which are slightly different communities can do some things. Individuals can do some things which would mitigate the risk and how. We get some incentives built in. It's not currently the case that there's a strong feedback loop between mitigation actions and the insured risk. There's also some nuances that you know, are being worked out we saw this in the Thomas fires last year. What about a mudslide that happens later because you've scorch the soil put it into a hydrophobic condition. And then you get a really intense rainfall event just right after the fire when the soil is absolutely unable to allow the water to percolate in. And then you get the classic mud flow. Is that covered under your homeowners insurance? Which would normally exclude things like a landslide. And there's been some findings by the department of insurance out here that if. Yeah, you know, if the fire was the proximate cause that's going to have to be covered. And so we're sort of stumbling our way. Through establishing what the social policies are going to be to both deal with the risk, but get people to deal with the risk as individuals, not expect the state. Yeah. Who handle the whole affair, and Dan if I could make one just quick point here, and then we'll get back to you. I I do think that one of the key points that you raised keys in in your comments about the homeowners is that if you haven't experienced an event, you're going to be you're going to have a harder time sort of taking steps to prepare for it and invest in it and wildfires may be a bit different. Because so much of California is now hurt hit by that. And so there is experienced by curiously with what other people have done we'll have to find that out. But then the other issue is knowing what to do and figuring out whether it's worth you're doing it. And those things are also on the table. So I think the challenge of getting anyone to prepare beforehand is something that is. A real real issue here. And as you pointed out with other natural disasters even worse because you haven't experienced the earthquake since nineteen ninety four and California and and floods and hurricanes have a similar problem. Although they be a lot more frequent now than they were in the past. You mentioned before the zoning part of this. And I wanted to touch on that anyway, is that the demographic of where people are living in some areas of California has changed a good bit in the last decade decade Naff in that you have more people that may be traditionally in the suburbs looking to be a little bit even farther out to have that that kind of that forest location that house in that style maybe more so than you did a couple of decades ago. Correct. And that would obviously play into part of the part of what we're talking about with people recognizing what's going on here. Absolutely. And the town of paradise which is. Is what you've been seeing the most images of with respect to the campfire is a perfect example of that that communities grown dramatically both as a result of commuters looking for more affordable housing. So we're working living farther and farther from some of the urban centers where we work, but it's also grown tremendously because of retirees and in fact, retirees moving into these areas as one of the big economic drivers of the local economy, you know, you bring wealth and pension assets that were accumulated working urban areas in your move up here, but we've had tremendous movement and to areas of the creating more and more of this wildland urban interface, and that growth is actually projected to continue and people move up there, you know, both economic reasons, but also quality of life. How much conversation is going on. Right now when you talk about all of these different kind of pieces to the puzzle to really start to to dig deeper into it. And I wanna throw on top of that a lot of people have conversation about the issue of the climate and the impact that the change in the climate over the last decade or two has had in maybe developing some of these these problems where forest fires wildfires are concerned. Yeah. There's no doubt that the scientific consensus on climate change is moving people to take action. And you hear that come up repeatedly governor Brown set up a forest task force management task force in the last months of his administration. That's very actively trying to work on these issues, and I expect that will continue into the new administration. So people are thinking how do we deal with this not just as an issue a fire? But but these changes. In the driver's afire like climate change, the zoning there's a great deal going on there in terms of well, if particular areas have different kinds of education, you want one size doesn't fit all a forest community isn't the same as a coastal shrub community. So if you're down there by where the Thomas fire was and you're in an area that had naturally long fire return into voles, some kind of education management might look different than up in the Sierra where the natural fire return interval was say seven to twelve years, and the really big question for me is whether or not we're going to map out some of the fire courters, which are function of topography and Santa Anna winds. So there are some areas where when we have the kinds of conditions that are running in cali-. Right now where you've got these hot dry winds late in the fire season where the fire behavior doesn't sit down at night the way you would during ordinary weather without the wind. And sometimes those wins, the topography channels them into certain areas and you're saying all right. If we've had the part of Santa Rosa, burn in the tons fire burnt twice very hot because of similar wind-driven events channel by the topography into a certain area. We may need some very special building codes right for an area like that. Well, and California's estate that is so dependent in terms of the the water in the moisture, it has in the soil in the ground from what you get through the winter up in the mountains with the snow, and and the rain is well, and that obviously those amounts have come down in recent years as well they've come down and. The seasons where the the rains don't start say in November December are really quite problematic. And we saw that so pointedly last year with the Thomas fire burning past the the New Year's and in the past, you know, we had defined fire season here. And the the weather is it's not just hotter and drier, it's also that the start of what brains we will get and we will get rains and any Mediterranean climate. The start of the rain has become a seemingly more variable. So we so it's it's we've already dramatically changed the staffing pattern right for fire service agencies over the last five years because of that we're joined here on the phone by Keith Gillis of the university of California Berkeley, along with Howard con Reuther of the Wharton school your comments at eight four four Wharton eight four four nine four. Two seven eight six six Howard. How how confident are you that that there are enough minds that understand how significant a problem is, obviously when you see the fires that that should be the, you know, the the the the drop dead point to begin with to want to make change on this. But how confident are you that there will be significant change in this? And again, part of this depends on the the atmosphere itself, but to really start to make some policy change where a lot of this is concerned. Well, I'd like to be a little bit optimistic on that Dan in the following sense that because of the number of wildfires and the magnitude of these wildfires in the last couple of years people are paying attention. The challenge is going to be for the state legislature for the state and the communities to take some steps now while the virus hot if I could use a horrible pun and really do things over the course of the next few months because if it's. Turns out that these steps are not taking now this tendency to go back to the status quo and say, we're not going to do very much. And so the hope is that these things now are going to force all of us to pay attention, which I think is one of the reasons why we're all we're talking about it. Now, let's hope that the appropriate. People can take that next step. And in that sense. I'd like to be optimistic, but I think from past disasters. We know that if you don't do things early and you don't take advantage of that. This tendency not to do anything. So let's I don't want to end on the negative note. Let's hope that the positive thing is what we where we go from what you say you are positive that that from a policy perspective that that we may be able to to take some steps here in the next few months in years. I think we are taking steps, and I think that's partly why the reaction to the president's comments were so intense about our forest management is that we. We're really working hard on these problems and some of them you can't solve overnight because some of them are fundamental legal issues of liability others involve how you're going to finance activities, and there's some, you know, fire control bonds and things like that. Which are interesting experiments where we're looking into out in California. We've got one going up in Tahoe. Where say a water district puts money on the table to do vegetation management with the idea that they'll actually recoup their investment through reduced costs of clearing out, sediment and debris flowing into their reservoirs as result of fire activity in watershed. So there are a lot of things we can try and do I think the issue though is maintaining focus on the problem. The fact that we've had now about. Six years of just terrible fire seasons help keeps Californians focused, but the country is a whole needs to think of natural hazards like forest fires earthquakes floods. I think in a way which doesn't treat them as random in infrequent events. Right. We need to treat this as part of our normal guys. Great having you with us today. Thank you Howard. Thank you, keep all the best. And we will talk to you again down the road. Thank you again. Thank thank you. Howard Reuther from here at the school, professor of decision sciences and policy and codirector the risk management and decision processes center. Keith Gillis who is professor and Dina meritous of the college of natural resources at the university of California at Berkeley for more insight from knowledge, please visit knowledge dot Morton dot EDU. Idiot.

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