By Dan Walters
Physicist Albert Einstein is widely, albeit erroneously, thought to have said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” but regardless of its source, the aphorism accurately reflects California’s attitude about wildfires.
Year after year, destructive fires whip through communities in the “wildland-urban interface,” often killing those who cannot or will not leave their homes and causing untold billions of dollars in property losses.
The frequency and severity of wildfires appear to be increasing as our climate changes, droughts persist and greenery dries and becomes explosive fuel. What was once a relatively brief fire season in late summer and early fall has morphed into a year-around peril.
And yet, more often than not, burned-over land soon sprouts new housing whose owners and tenants once again place themselves in harm’s way.
A new study by UC Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation, commissioned by the think tank Next 10, attributes this seemingly loony practice to misguided state and local policies that incentivize reconstruction in fire-prone areas.
“Wildfire threatens the lives and homes of more than one-quarter of California’s population,” F. Noel Perry, the founder of Next 10, said in a statement that accompanied the report. “We must overhaul local and state policies and planning procedures to ensure that we are not incentivizing actions that elevate wildfire risks.”
The study found that replacing current homes in high-risk areas would cost at least $610 billion and that huge number scares insurers. As they pay out huge sums to burned-out policyholders and the danger of future catastrophic losses increases, insurers either shun coverage altogether or impose steep hikes on premiums.
“With climate-fueled wildfires scorching hundreds of thousands of acres, causing the loss of life and property, wildfire insurance availability has shrunk while the premiums charged have increased,” a commission appointed by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara declared recently.
Insurance is required by mortgage lenders and many property owners, unable to purchase coverage in the private market, have turned to a statewide insurance pool of last resort that has high premiums and limited coverage.
The Next 10 study recommends that the wildfire risk be approached by overhauling land use policies that lack “incentives to avoid building in fire-prone areas” and thus are “contributing to the persistent and increasing risk of significant economic and human costs associated with wildfires.”
Land use in California is largely controlled by state and county governments through zoning and construction permitting. The state’s housing crisis has demonstrated that those governments are often reluctant to approve high-density housing, especially that meant for low- and moderate-income renters, within urban areas.
However, as the Next 10 study points out, they tend to be more supportive of housing, especially single-family homes, in urban peripheries, which also tend to be the areas of the highest wildfire risk.
The report proposes “moving homes out of the WUI (Wildlands-Urban Interface), incorporating greenbelts and wildfire buffers, increasing density in existing commercial cores, adding gentle density in the form of ‘missing middle’ housing and accessory dwelling units to areas not in the WUI, and embracing manufactured housing as an affordable-by-design approach.”
Lara’s commission, meanwhile, suggests insurance premiums based on forecasts of future peril, rather than past experience, blanket policies that spread risk, rewards for making homes more resistant to damage and other steps that can mitigate not only wildfire impacts but the less obvious risk of destructive flooding.
Both studies underscore a fact we ignore at our existential peril: Despite its many attributes, living in California means living with constant threat of catastrophe.
CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.