The Camp Fire Is Creating California's Next Housing Crisis

Illustration for article titled The Camp Fire Is Creating Californias Next Housing Crisis
Photo: Getty

With each passing day, the number of structures destroyed by the Camp Fire rises. The fire is easily the most destructive in California’s history, unleashing a housing crisis of untold proportions. In the short-term, rents could spike, while over the longer term high costs could make any efforts to rebuild the devastated town of Paradise a pricy endeavor.

Advertisement

Cal Fire estimates show that at least 17,148 buildings have been swallowed by the Camp Fire’s flames. That’s nearly 4,000 more than the rest of the five-most destructive California fires combined. There are tens of thousands of climate refugees living in temporary arrangements ranging from families’ and friends’ spare rooms and couches to hotels to shelters to tent cities in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico, located about 15 miles from the areas hardest hit by the Camp Fire. Rains are on the way this week, which could send people in search of more firm shelter.

There is nothing on the scale of the Camp Fire in modern American history, but if you want to find the closest analog for what comes next, the 2017 Wine Country Fires are it. They held the record of the most destructive fires in California history for all of a year, destroying thousands of houses and apartments in Napa and Sonoma counties. Rents spiked in the immediate aftermath, according to data compiled by Zillow at the time.

Advertisement

“We also saw an influx of homes that have never been rented before,” Aaron Terrazas, the company’s senior economist, told Earther. He noted that these properties were likely people’s vacation homes or short-term rentals that were opened up to people displaced by the fires.

Terrazas said he expects to see rental prices in Chico and communities near the Camp Fire similarly rise in the next 2-3 months. But that’s pretty much where the comparisons end, because the regions are so different.

“Many people at least in Napa and Sonoma moved further afield into the East Bay or San Francisco or even the South Bay,” Terrazas said. “There were a lot more option for people displaced from Santa Rosa [the city at the epicenter of the 2017 fires] compared to people displaced from the Camp Fire.”

Indeed, while the Bay Area is dealing with an affordable housing crunch, it still has more options than Butte County and the area near the Camp Fire. It also had to absorb dramatically fewer displaced people and lost far fewer housing units. In Butte County, the nearly 13,000 homes lost in the fire represent 13 percent of the county’s housing stock. There’s unlikely to be space for everyone who wants to stay in the immediate aftermath.

Advertisement

That could mean the area never quite bounces back as people settle into places further afield, similar to what happened in the wake of hurricanes like Andrew, Katrina, or more recently, Maria, Harvey, and even Michael. The cost to rebuild could make the climb to recovery even steeper.

Advertisement

The median home value in Butte County is already about 9 percent higher than the national average (though it’s about 45 percent less than across California as a whole). But there are a number of factors that could make building new homes even more expensive, including trade and immigration policies put in place by the Trump administration.

“I can’t emphasize how important the cost of rebuilding is,” Terrazas said. “Lumber prices skyrocketed in part because of a trade dispute with Canada. Other construction materials are up because of a trade dispute with China. There are a lot of self-imposed wounds.”

Advertisement

Because of the time it takes for insurance claims to go through along with the challenges of restoring power, water, and generally cleaning up the remnants of Paradise, Terrazas said he’ll be looking at how many new construction permits are issued in March or April as an important signpost on the very long road to recovery (or lack thereof). With climate change and other factors conspiring to make wildfires more destructive, whether rebuilding is a road communities should even go down is an open question.

Managing editor, Earther

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Here’s an interesting FEMA technical guide in draft:

Home Builder’s Guide to Construction in Wildfire Zones Technical Fact Sheet Series FEMA xxx / September 2008, DRAFT

And here’s the technical document(s) on FEMA website:

It’s actually kind of interesting and a breezy read.

From one of the technical guides (bolding me):

Construction in the Wildland/Urban Interface The following factors affect the probability that a building will survive a wildfire: Topography and weather, Defensible space, Building envelope, and Community infrastructure.

Whenever you make a list of controlling factors for an engineering document like the FEMA one cited above, it’s standard practice to put the most important factor first in the list. That would be topography and weather - as in, don’t build anything in the area of concern if the concern has a high wildfire potential driven by land and climate conditions.

It seems like California developers should work closely with California regulators and environmental/engineering types going forward. Oh who am I kidding, America First(TM) can just look at how successful Finland manages its wildland urban interface and develop the fuck out of the fire prone west. Maybe all future woodland homes will be from Elon Musk’s brick company.