The Social Costs of Living in Wildfire-Prone Areas 

With dangerous fires becoming the norm in California, the price to pay for living in and near wooded areas can no longer be ignored.

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Most wildfires in California are started by human activity, said Butsic, and as the number of homes in the WUI has increased, so has the number of wildfires.

Research has shown that firefighting costs are dramatically higher if there is just a single inhabited structure in a burning area.

"The cost of firefighting skyrockets as soon as there is just one house," Butsic said. "It's not proportional, either. It's goes way up if there's one house to protect or if there are 100 houses."

He said the costs associated with protecting an area from fire plunge when there's much more housing density.

"Like where I live on the flats of Oakland, there's almost nothing to burn," he said.

The effect of this development-to-cost relationship is an inverted U-curve that illustrates the high price of allowing scattered homes in the WUI. When fires burn there, firefighting crews become obligated to guard the properties from flames.

"If there are too many homes at risk, they bring in firefighters from the Bay Area and all these other urban areas where salaries are high, and it gets very, very expensive," said Mike Kirkley, formerly a Cal Fire chief who retired nine years ago, just before the West's wildfires seemed to jump noticeably in magnitude and severity.

Costs have ballooned, too. From 2000 to midway through 2007, the state spent an average of $166 million per year on fire suppression, according to Cal Fire records. An equal length of time one decade later, ending in June 2017, saw a doubling of costs — $310 million per year. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, California spent $773 million fighting fires. In July alone, the first month of the new fiscal year, the state spent $114 million fighting wildfires.

Who should be covering these costs is a question many have asked. For a time, California had an effective system in place of taxing homeowners living in high-risk fire hazard zones to recoup the costs of protecting their properties. The State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fee was initiated in 2011 and required residents in the carefully mapped risk zone to pay the state an annual fee of $156 per habitable structure. Over the next five fiscal years, this system generated $112 million for Cal Fire for wildfire prevention and protection.

"But Republicans hated it because it was basically a tax on their constituents," Butsic said. Last July — just three months before the apocalyptic North Bay fires — Gov. Jerry Brown discontinued the program, which effectively loaded firefighting costs back onto California taxpayers.

Community-level fire prevention programs have also struggled to garner sufficient funding. For instance, only a few cities have been willing to pay for their own wildfire prevention assessment districts, as Oakland did from 1992 to 1997 and 2003 to 2013.

"Even fairly affluent cities in high-risk areas haven't been willing to fund these assessment districts," Stewart said.

Oakland's wildfire assessment district drew $65 per year per single-family dwelling and generated about $1.8 million annually for fire prevention measures. In 2013, voters chose to terminate the tax that funded the district, leaving the small agency to live feebly off its coffer savings before they ran out in 2016.

"I live in a relatively low-income county where these fees are controversial, but in the affluent East Bay, people really can't argue that they can't afford to support such a program," Kirkley said.

Just as Oakland did after the 1991 disaster, the City of Berkeley initiated a program to support firefighters burdened with the chore of protecting homes in highly vegetated, high-risk areas. It was started in 1997 and discontinued after several years. The city's fire department remains busy with inspections, said Keith May, the assistant chief of special operations with the Berkeley Fire Department. He said three department inspectors make about 1,300 neighborhood inspections each year of dangerous vegetation on and around private properties. Many of them result in enforcement actions, though May notes that the process of forcing a landowner to, say, trim or remove a tree is a long one.

"It can take six or eight months, and by then you're into the next fire season," he said.

Some feel California and its 58 counties, 40 million people, and countless small fire districts have been hamstrung by disorganization as agencies and leaders debate fire prevention strategies.

"It's very confusing," Kent said. "No one's in charge, not even Cal Fire, so it's a mess out here. Twenty-seven years after the Oakland fire and we still don't have a plan." He said the East Bay "is in significant trouble."

To mitigate this risk, the City of Oakland, along with the Oakland Fire Department, just released a draft vegetation management plan to address vegetation-related fire hazards. The 214-page document cites overgrown problem areas and generally aims "to evaluate the specific wildfire hazard factors in the Plan Area and provide a framework for managing vegetative fuel loads."

Piper thinks Oakland officials should be providing specific, detailed plans for trimming vegetation and removing trees where needed.

"We want a vision for what a managed wildland-urban interface should look like, but the city hasn't provided one," she said.

The Oakland Fire Department declined to comment, and the city did not respond to an email request.

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