The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Cost of Fire

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So, the national fire Preparedness Level (PL) has gone to 5.

PLs are a way of defining the current draw on wildfire fighting resources. The higher the number, the more resources have been committed and the less-prepared we are for additional fires without additional help. Each region has its own PL, and then the US as a whole has a PL. If the national PL is 1, that means that all fires can be handled locally, without outside assistance. As the PL rises, the response to fire is organized at larger and larger scales, until at PL 5, teams are being called in from all over the country, and sometimes even from other countries, because local and even regional resources have been overwhelmed.

My husband goes west to fight fires at PL 5. We are now on alert. All our plans, from family get-togethers to vet appointments, must now be organized around the possibility that he could get the call. When you watch news coverage of catastrophic fires, remember the news is personal for some people.

This year’s fires are scary. Three firefighter have already died, as have several civilians. July is the first month of California’s fiscal year, and the state has already spent a quarter of its fire budget–and the worst part of its fire season is still months away. Fire seasons are trending worse, now, for all sorts of reasons, climate change among them. Not only are fire seasons longer and more intense, largely because of changes in precipitation patterns, but hotter weather makes fires less predictable and renders firefighters much more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I’ve described these mechanisms before. They remain important to know about and think about.

But I’m also thinking about politics.

This years’ fires have involved extensive property damage–“1000 homes and businesses,” according to one article, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what that means, clearly communities have been damaged. Recovery from such damage takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Who pays?

I’m having trouble finding descriptions of the long-term effects of community-scale loss to fire, but I have information that offers suggestions. I can look at other kinds of big disasters, such as major floods. I can look at recovery from isolated house fires. I can look at short-term recovery from community-scale fires. Clean-up and rebuilding seem to take two or three years, assuming the survivors can get money to rebuild, assuming that work is not delayed by labor shortages, price hikes, or fraud, and assuming that no new disaster occurs to set the process back. But those are some big assumptions. Some families might not be able to rebuild at all, and might well find themselves knocked down a socioeconomic rung or two permanently. Mental and physical health issues can persist. New construction might simply recreate the vulnerabilities that made the disaster so bad in the first place. The community will likely never recover completely.

So, that means reduced economic activity and increased demand for social services over time, costs that must be largely invisible when we look at the already-large price tags of these fires. Who pays for these costs? Somebody has to.

Firefighting itself is generally covered by the US Forest Service and the BLM, since most wildfires happen on their land. These agencies have an annual firefighting budget based on the average firefighting costs over the past ten years. When that budget is exhausted, as sometimes happens, the extra money is taken from other budgets, usually from money set aside for mitigating fire risk (thinning forests, for example, or doing proscribed burns), so bad fires beget more bad fires. Curiously, wildfires are not legally considered “natural disasters,” meaning FEMA is not involved. Individual survivors must depend on private insurance.

As fires and other disasters become more frequent with climate change, the United States may lose the ability to pay for so many large-scale, multi-year recoveries. That is a huge problem. But it’s not the only problem.

Between the costs survivors must bear directly, state and local taxpayer burdens, and Federal budget problems that result in more fires (with their hidden, long-term costs), the bill for wildfires lands mostly on the people who live in or near the places that burn. We’re talking about public health, economic issues, damaged lives. And a share of that bill can be placed at the feet of climate change–which the Federal government is doing fundamentally nothing about.

What I want to know is why fire-prone states aren’t all electing climate hawks to Congress? Why didn’t all these states go Democrat in the last presidential election? Why isn’t this part of the story part of the public conversation on climate change?

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “The Cost of Fire

  1. Pingback: New Year’s New Round-Up | The Climate in Emergency

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