Reducing California Wildfire Losses

August 27, 2020

Howard Kunreuther and Erin St. Peter

Recent wildfires still raging in California have been caused by what some experts deem an unprecedented volume and pattern of almost 300 lightning strikes in contrast to nearly 90% of U.S. wildfires that are caused by equipment sources (e.g., utility wires) or by humans (e.g., campfires). So far this year, more than 7,000 fires have chewed through 1.4 million acres compared to 4,292 fires that had burned only 56,000 acres across the state by this date (August 25) in 2019.

These fires follow record heat waves in California. Evacuation processes are further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. The co-occurrence of these multiple environmental crises is a preview of the future under climate change. To highlight this point, a study on the impact of climate change on wildfires in California has found that, over the next forty years, rising temperatures associated with climate change could cause wildfires in California to continue to grow exponentially.

California has faced challenges over the years in convincing communities and property owners to adopt land use measures to reduce the likelihood of a fire spreading, notably in areas that are most prone to this risk: the wildland-urban interface (WUI). California’s current fires are a reminder of the need for undertaking strategic measures now to reduce future wildfires.

Why do people underprepare for disasters?

A large body of empirical research characterizes cognitive biases and behavioral obstacles that lead those at risk to underprepare for disasters.  At the household or individual level, actions are particularly misguided with respect to potentially catastrophic events, such as wildfires, that are perceived to have a low probability of occurrence.

Due to myopia, individuals tend to underestimate future risk.  They focus on their current situation when no disaster is in the offing and do not consider their long-term risk. During and immediately following a disaster there is a tendency to overestimate future risks due to the salience of the event. These feelings normally abate soon thereafter leading individuals and municipalities to again underinvest in protection.

Optimism leads people to believe that they are immune from severe threats that have a low probability of occurrence. Community studies in Colorado suggest that residents are much more likely to rate their homes as being of lower risk than do professionals.

Choice overload describes the difficulty individuals have in making a decision when faced with many options. As explored in community studies by Wildfire Partners, many WUI households have difficulty choosing between the array of mitigation methods presented to them, resulting in inaction absent more comprehensive consultation with experts. This behavior is compounded by a simplification bias where individuals focus on the low probability of a fire occurring and view it as below their threshold level of concern, so they do not consider the consequences.

Herding implies that individuals’ choices are often influenced by the behavior of others, especially under conditions of uncertainty. If households do not reduce their risk by making their home and yard more fire resistant, then other neighbors are likely to follow suit. The wildfire problem is compounded by the interdependency of the risk, meaning that individual action is less likely without substantial community coordination. As the LA Times reported in a piece following the Camp Fire in California in 2018:

Fires that spread from house to house generate a force of their own. Embers, broadcast by the wind, find dry leaves, igniting one structure then another, and the cycle is perpetuated block after block. Break that cycle and the fire quits, and destruction can be minimized.

What can be done to reduce future wildfire damage?

Given the biases described above, a first step is to reframe information on the risk so that people in the WUI pay attention. For example, rather than presenting information on the annual probability of a damaging wildfire as 1-in-100, reframe this probability as a greater than a 1-in-4 chance of such a wildfire occurring in the next 25 years. This strategy has been shown to more effectively communicate flood risk in the United States. One could also present property owners with scenarios as to the financial impact of experiencing severe damage from a wildfire if they had not invested in mitigation measures.

Once the wildfire risk is on homeowners’ radar screens, property owners can be encouraged to invest in mitigation through different incentives. For example, Colorado subsidizes wildfire risk mitigation on private property through a state income tax deduction of up to $2500.

Communities in high-risk and low-risk areas have an important role to play in developing strategies for reducing wildfire risk. High-risk communities can use building codes and land use strategies to fortify structures and prevent further risky expansion into the WUI. At the same time, zoning policies that prevent housing growth in lower-risk areas of California, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, have also pushed housing development into the WUI. When new construction and/or density is restricted in low-risk areas, development can often takes place in high-risk areas. State Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco), a proponent of increasing housing supply has argued that restrictive zoning in urban areas leads to housing sprawl into the WUI.

Various programs and resources are available to help regions and municipalities incorporate land use planning and other strategies to reduce wildfire risk. The Boulder County Wildfire Partners Mitigation Program is a model for others to follow as it incorporates comprehensive mitigation measures into county-level building codes. Homeowners are offered professional inspections and, if they complete certain recommended mitigation actions for their property, they receive a program certificate that enables them to get homeowners insurance that covers damage from wildfires. Another program, Community Planning Assistance for Wildfires, offers free expert technical assistance for land use planning to help communities reduce wildfire risk in the WUI. Communities are selected for assistance based on a competitive grant process.

Even though are attention is focused on the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the California wildfires of August 2020 provide a call to action for efforts to substantially reduce communities’ exposure to wildfire. The CA Senate Housing Committee could take the lead in convening a virtual meeting of the key stakeholders (property owners, community leaders, utilities real estate developers, banks, and insurers) to develop a plan to reduce future losses before the 2021 wildfire season. Ideally, a few communities in California that are concerned with their wildfire risk could adopt these ideas and serve as models for others to follow.