While Gov. Jerry Brown blames the horrific death toll from California’s late-season wildfires on climate change, he and the state’s lawmakers have done little to discourage people from building homes in high-risk wildfire zones known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI). By shifting the cost of wildfire prevention and protection to general taxpayers, they send the wrong signals about risk to WUI homeowners.
The result of misguided policies is that the number of California homes built in the WUI grew by 34 percent between 1990 and 2010, bringing the total to nearly 5 million homes. Research published in Land Use Policy estimates that nearly 12 million acres of wild and agricultural lands in California will be replaced with houses by 2050. Nearly 1 million homes will be “in ‘very high’ wildfire severity zones.” Regardless of the cause, wildfires will be more devastating than they have been.
Insurance companies are sending a clearer signal to homeowners regarding wildfire risk. State officials reported that non-renewals increased by 15 percent between 2015 and 2016 and that some premiums have increased five-fold. Such signals should encourage less development in the WUI.
Policies that require wildland-urban interface homeowners to support CAL-FIRE are another step in the direction of homeowner accountability. The third-largest source of funding for CAL FIRE is the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fund. It required each WUI homeowner to pay a fee of $153.33 per year. Similarly, Santa Barbara’s Wildlife Fire Suppression Assessment District requires 3,300 homes to pay only $65 per year for fire prevention services. The former, however, was suspended in 2018 until 2031, and the latter is tiny compared to fire prevention expenditures.
Many other California policies reduce the risks faced by homeowners. For example, CAL FIRE, the state agency responsible for fire prevention and suppression throughout much of the wildland-urban interface, receives 85 percent to 90 percent of its budget from the state’s general fund.
Following brushfires and riots in the late 1960s, California created the Fair Access to Insurance Requirement Plan or FAIR. This plan requires all licensed insurers in California to pool the risks in order to guarantee coverage property owners “who, beyond their control, have been unable to obtain in the voluntary insurance market.” At a meeting in September, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones reported that 33,000 homeowners had been driven to FAIR.
The cost of living in the wildland-urban interface is further distorted by emergency funding that follows abnormal events. California law requires that communities in high-risk areas develop Local Hazard Mitigation Plans. Once approved, they become eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding in the event of a wildlife. This spreads the cost of living in the WUI over a national taxpayer base.
Wildfire policies in California provide a useful lens for thinking more generally about risk associated with climate change. If people bear the full risks to life and property associated with living in the WUI or on the beach, they are more likely to live in safer places or make defensive expenditures — installing fire resistant roofs or pilings that allow coastal flooding to go under rather than through homes. Policies that subsidize fire and hurricane insurance, mute these incentives.
As the new National Climate Assessment makes clear, we will face significant costs from climate change in the future. Adaptation can help reduce these costs. Rather than trying to defy Mother Nature, it would be better to harness human nature by sending clear signals about the risks of climate change. Making people bear more of the cost associated with the risk of living in the wildland-urban interface is a good place to start.
• Terry L. Anderson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Andrew J. Plantinga is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and co-director of the Environmental Markets Solutions Lab (emLab).