Jessica Wentz escaped the concrete confines of New York for her childhood home of Santa Rosa, California last year. At the time, the decision seemed like a no brainer, leaving behind a landscape dominated by humans for one where homes mingled with the forest and rolling chaparral hills of Northern California.
But the dream of moving home turned into a nightmare on an early October night. Whipped by gusty winds and tinderbox conditions, the Tubbs Fire roared into town, melting cars, consuming homes, and leaving nearly two dozen dead en route to becoming California’s most destructive fire in history. By the time the flames were contained on Halloween, the fire had claimed 5,636 structures, including Wentz’s parent’s home where she had grown up.
“I’m definitely reconsidering my whole perspective of where I want to live and how I want to live and how I want to raise a family,” Wentz, a staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Earther. “It’s hard to explain that, to feel like I can’t return to that place.”
Millions of Americans may soon be forced to confront similar feelings. California has been at the epicenter of a fiery crisis over the past year as everything from iconic locales like Wine Country to interstate towns like Redding burn. More generally, across the West towns small and large have been decimated by wildfires in recent years thanks to rising temperatures, more human-sparked fires, and more humans living in harms way.
It raises an uncomfortable question that coastal residents, policymakers, and insurance underwriters have been forced to grapple with in recent years: Is it worth it to build (or rebuild) in a landscape primed for explosive fires? The answer—for now—is yes, but that calculus could change as rising temperatures and more frequent droughts conspire to make the forest a riskier place to live. And it’s an open question of who will foot the bill as that risk increases—and what happens when the risk becomes too high.
“Increasing wildfire risk is a top concern of many insurers,” Chris Folkman, a senior director at catastrophe modeling firm RMS, told Earther.
2017 was the costliest wildfire season in American history. The National Centers for Environmental Information estimates that were $18.4 billion in wildfire-related damages, including three separate California fires that topped $1 billion. The losses were an eye opener for insurers.
Folkman said the previous standard for issuing policies in fire prone areas relied on surcharges in high risk areas based on what insurers viewed as “frequent but manageable outbreaks of claims.”
“As we’ve learned from recent events, this approach will no longer cut it,” he said.
Indeed, this year has seen fire-lated damages continue to mount, with the Carr Fire currently sitting as the sixth-most destructive fire in California history and the Ranch Fire taking the claim as the largest. Across the West, more than 5.9 million acres have burned for the year-to-date, upwards of a million acres more than than the 10-year average.
Rising temperatures are in part responsible for more dramatic wildfire. But humans are making fires worse in other ways as well. The vast majority of fires are started by us, and decades of fire suppression have increased fuel loads for incendiary fires. Perhaps most importantly, there’s more people living at the so-called wildland-urban interface or WUI, than ever before. A paper published earlier this year found that from 1990 to 2010, the WUI grew from 224,325 square miles to nearly 297,300 as 13.4 million new homes were built there.
“This [change in] area is larger than the state of [Washington], and made the WUI the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States,” Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service who co-authored the paper, told Earther.
All of this means more property and people in harm’s way, upping the risk of catastrophic fires. There are a few ways that risk is currently being mitigated.
The most obvious is firefighting to either tamp down fires or control them in ways that can help clear some of that heavy fuel load. But fighting fires is a costly endeavor. Last year, the federal government spent $2 billion fighting wildfires with state agencies chipping in billions more to combat blazes.
“A lot of that money is spent on protecting homes,” Judd Boomhower, an economist at the University of California, San Diego studying fires, told Earther.
That creates what economists call a moral hazard, essentially encouraging risky behavior. In the case of wildfires, firefighting incentivizes people to either move to fire-prone areas or rebuild after disaster strikes. This means insurance rates don’t reflect the true risks.
What’s more, a number of states have something called the FAIR Plan, which offers individuals insurance in areas deemed too disaster prone by private insurers. That includes a number of fire prone states, such as California, New Mexico, and Oregon.
Those policies often have high premiums and are only viewed as a last resort. But California law also prohibits insurers from cancelling a homeowner’s policy while they’re rebuilding after a fire or other natural disaster. Moreover, companies have to renew a policy at least once after that, making rebuilding a much more attractive option.
Boomhower said (while stressing he was not advocating for it) that the most market-based solution would be to charge communities a fee for firefighting services. While private wildland firefighting might be a libertarian wet dream, it’s definitely not politically palatable. It’s also unfeasible to let insurers cancel policies in the wake of wildfire damage, since kicking people while they’re down is a surefire way to lose an election. But taking the two most obvious fixes off the table doesn’t mean the problem is totally intractable in the short-term.
In her work looking at the wildland-urban interface, Mockrin found some communities were already adapting to our hotter, more flammable present in the wake of fires. Their solutions ran the gauntlet from voluntary programs and education about risks to more stringent building codes. But nearly all the solutions have focused on new builds, leaving older homes facing higher risks.
“It’s very rare to see regulations that require retrofitting,” she said. “The only thing I’ve seen for that is if your roof needs to be replaced, it has to be fire resistant.”
Folkman said RMS is working on a new wildfire model that will help capture some of the risk in more actionable terms. The idea is that quantifying the biggest risks—say rising temperatures, drier fuels, or housing density—will allow state agencies or even local communities can take more preventative actions that keep houses safer. It could also help insurers set rates that are more in line with the risks while also rewarding good behaviors.
That’s something already happening in some places. In Colorado, for example, a number of insurers require some fire mitigation for homeowners to get a policy.
Beyond these fixes, there’s even bigger picture stuff, like prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads, fixing the firefighting budget or, you know, reducing carbon emissions so the climate doesn’t get even hotter and more fire-prone. But eventually, the rising tide of risk and repeated losses could be too much, forcing individuals and communities to confront some hard truths.
Wentz wasn’t ready to leave California so soon after moving back home. Instead, she settled on buying a place in what she described as “the center of town.” It’s a compromise much like managed retreat somewhat inland from the increasing rising ocean to a place where risk is lower but still present.
“Over half the acreage in Lake County has burned over the past five years,” Wentz said. “You’re seeing fires come through multiple times. Once you have two fires in the area over a couple decades, that’s a sign to insurance companies. I think we’re on a threshold.”
We could find out what’s on the other side sooner than later, and it’s unlikely to be pretty.
Correction: Miranda Mockrin was previously quoted in this post as saying the WUI is the size of Wisconsin. She meant to say Washington. The text has been updated accordingly.