California Burning

By Ben Christopher and Judy Lin | October 18, 2017

After a particularly wet rainy season fueled growth of lush vegetation, the sweltering summer of 2017 dried those plants to a crackly, combustible crunch. Several locales had racked up record temperatures, including a historic thermometer high of 106 in San Francisco on Sept. 1. Wildfires were an inevitable consequence, but none so fierce as October’s infernos that consumed vast swaths of the state’s iconic Wine Country.

Californians worry that this is their climate-change-fueled “new normal.” They’re also warned of the price they may pay for nestling their homes and communities in the state’s breathtakingly scenic—but not always hospitable—countryside. The closer wildfires move to urbanized areas, the greater the toll , not just in property but in life itself.

A look at how the state is struggling to deal with these fires—and how they will continue to exact a toll on California for months and years to come.

Photo by Kent Porter, The Press Democrat via AP. 

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California Burning


How bad is it?

A routine fire season—and the state’s deadliest

At any given time between June and October, a good portion of California is on fire. With so many flames in the headlines and so much smoke in the air, you could be forgiven for thinking that this year’s fire season has devoured a record amount of land.

But it hasn’t. Not yet anyway.

Take a look at how much of the state has burned in 2017 so far. These 1.2 million-plus acres make for a big fire season to be sure, but not an unprecedented one. The size and severity of recent fires may be on an upward trend—the product of drought, overly exuberant fire suppression, and a changing climate—but by and large, twas ever thus.

What makes this year unusual—and unusually tragic—is that this season’s largest fires didn’t burn in remote corners of California, far from population centers and garnering little state-wide attention. This year, unluckily, they started where so many of us live.

The result is the most destructive and deadly wildfire season in recent memory. Of the top 20 most deadly fires in California history, four are burning right now.

Wildfire’s rippling costs to hit California hard

Excessively dry and hot conditions have led to a tenfold increase on California’s wildfire fighting costs in 20 years, from around $60 million in 1996 to more than $600 million in 2016.

California is also experiencing bigger and more intense wildfires. Notably, the 2016 Soberanes Fire was the most expensive wildfire fight in U.S. history, topping more than $200 million in firefighting expenses.

Cal Fire reports the state had spent $505 million as of January 2017 before having to battle the deadly Northern California blazes.

The Cal Fire budget comes out to just less than $2 billion. Typically, about a quarter of that is spent just putting out fires. But this year isn’t likely to be typical. Cal Fire had deployed well over 11,000 firefighters—a combination of agency hires, private contractors, federal workers, employees of other state agencies, and prison inmate crews—to the 14 major infernos raging across the state.

This small army had been re-enforced with an arsenal of heavy-duty machinery, including:

  • 973 tankers and water trucks
  • 150-plus bulldozers
  • 58 helicopters (including 11 owned by Cal Fire)
  • 10 airplanes (of the 23 owned by the agency)

The blazes in California’s wine country will also take an economic toll. According to the Wine Institute, which represents California wineries, California wine is a $114 billion-a-year industry and employs 325,000 Californians. The 23.6 million visitors to California’s wine country is more than the estimated 20.4 million visitors to Walt Disney World in Florida.

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones says preliminary data from eight insurers show more than $1 billion in losses to homes, businesses, vehicles and agricultural equipment. “These numbers are just the beginning of the story as one of the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California’s history,” Jones said.

CoreLogic, a property analytics firm, estimates the October wildfires could cause up to $65 billion in property damage in Napa and Santa Rosa with more than 172,000 homes at risk.

Compounding the housing crunch

It isn’t like Northern California wasn’t already facing a housing shortage.

Just since October 8, fires have wiped out nearly 6,000 structures across the state—roughly half in Santa Rosa alone.

We don’t yet know exactly how many of those are homes, but it’s sure to be a major setback for the region’s housing needs. Between 2015 and 2016, the seven counties affected by the fires built just 2,000 new units. During the same period, rents have bound upward—by as much as 27 percent in Santa Rosa.

This week thousands of fire evacuees are discovering that they are now homeless. State Attorney General Becerra has warned landlords and hotel owners against profiteering off those who are most desperate, noting that it’s illegal to charge a price for an item that exceeds, by more than 10 percent, the price of that item before the declaration of a state or local emergency. This law applies to hotel accommodations and rental housing, but does nothing to replace the lost units. Until those are built, it is almost certain that many will not be able to compete for the available housing and will be forced to relocate out of the region or out of the state.

Now community leaders and state lawmakers will have to decide what the lesson there is to take from this tragedy. State law already requires homeowners who live in high fire risk areas to clear their property of flammable matter and build their houses with fire resistant materials. But these regulations are not always rigorously enforced, the building code requirements only apply to new structures, and many of the houses incinerated in this round of fires were not covered anyway.

Should these rules be expanded and strengthened? Should there be a reassessment of which communities should be considered “high fire hazard” zones? That’s a relative term in California. By one degree or another, we all live in wildfire country.

Inhaling trouble: the health toll

The Bay Area experienced its dirtiest air on record as a result of the smoke-belching wildfires in early October. Although Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties bore the initial brunt, the plume also drifted as far as the South Bay.

So how much pollution was there?

The air quality was so unhealthy that over several days, air pollution in the North Bay reached levels equivalent to the kind of levels you see on bad days in Beijing, China, said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

CNN reported that the wildfires produced the same amount of air pollution as vehicles did in California in one year.

The air district issued multi-day health advisories and Spare The Air alerts in October, advising people to stay indoors in buildings with filtered air or to wear N95 masks to help minimize breathing fine particles.

“It’s unprecedented in recent memory that we’ve reached this level for this period of days,” said Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the district. Officials continue to warn that air quality will remain poor for days to come due to active wildfires and changing wind patterns.

As cleanup begins and the area tries to get back to business, the California Labor Federation is urging workers not to work in dangerous conditions—and that if they must work, they need to wear proper masks. The union also advises any workers expected to work without proper gear to file a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Because complaints are confidential, the state may not make public any citations against employers until an investigation is completed, said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA.

“We’re in the process of posting additional information on what employers need to be aware of as they begin the process of cleaning up,” Monterroza said. “There are still health hazards that they need to keep in mind such as wearing masks or long sleeves.”