"The Fires Next Time"

Until insurers are allowed to charge premiums high enough to cover actual risks, people will continue to build and reside in places they probably shouldn't, secure in the knowledge that when Mother Nature inevitably strikes, someone else will write a rescue check.

According to a recent study of 11 Western states by Headwaters Economics, just 14% of the wildland urban interface [WUI] is currently developed. But that number has been growing steadily, as have the costs of protecting the WUI. Since 1992, the Forest Service's fire expenditures have grown by 450%, and well over half of that has been spent protecting private property next to public land.

"The only behavioral change I can imagine is if fire-fighting costs were borne by local counties," says Ray Rasker of Headwaters. "Right now, if you're declared a disaster area, FEMA will bail you out, or BLM will bail you out," he says, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Bureau of Land Management, two of the more than two dozen federal agencies that respond to emergencies.

California's last big fires occurred in 2003 and largely in the same areas burning today. Which is to say these fires are not only natural but somewhat predictable in location. And while the immediate priority is to suppress them while giving aid and comfort to the displaced, policy makers might also look to mitigate the potential damage the next time they occur. And that means holding homeowners, developers, states and local communities more accountable. Link.


As it is, the over-regulated insurance market and the promise of federal emergency money means we're effectively paying people to live in communities that destroy our wildlands.

I don't get it.


Layanee said...

I think we just can't accept nature as the ultimate force. Maybe someday people will come to their senses but many of the most desirable places to live are the most susceptible to nature's fury. If you can afford to live there then insurance costs should be factored in as well.

mmw said...

Layanee's right. Chuck, you and I don't wake up every day and think, well, today might be the day that an earthquake destroys everything I own and/or kills me, which is something that is not at all unlikely to happen at any minute. We also don't think that a catastrophic fire might do the same thing, although that is approximately just as likely. Now, since these disasters happen on a hundred year cycle here, does that mean we should pay 1/10th what San Diegans do for insurance (their burn cycle is every 10 years)?
Yeah, probably we should.

Also, have you read Ecology of Fear?

chuck b. said...

I haven't read Ecology of Fear; thanks for the tip.

Guy and I pay a for earthquake insurance (in addition to our homeowner's insurance). It's not required, and most people in the Bay Area don't bother. People I know actually expect FEMA money if it comes to that. I think that's wrong. It's also very undertsandable.

(I also doubt very much we would actually get paid for an earthquake insurance claim, but that's a different post.)

Floods are very common in the south bay where my dad lives (e.g., Santa Clara)--most of it is built on seasonal wetlands (or "flood plain" if you're an insurance company). And it does flood there. Flood insurance is required to own property in my dad's neighborhood. I don't know what insurance is required of people living in fire-adapted ecologies. But I hope it costs extra. It should.

And I want to reiterate my concern about the destruction of coastal sage scrub by these sprawling communities in the southland.

lisa said...

I agree with this line of thinking, I think our government has enough to pay for, they don't need the burden of rewarding "risky real estate". Of course, if you believe scientists, the entire west coast, Japan, and much of the rest of the Pacific is on the "ring of fire", and major disaster is imminent, anyway. No way FEMA's gonna cover that!