Does your hometown have wildfire protections in place?

Wildfire protection to fight the costs of climate changeI live only 30 miles away from the site of the Atlas fire, one of several to burn through California’s North Bay region last month. There were days the air was too thick with smoke to go outside. Ash fell at my doorstep. People around town were outfitted with respirator masks. I filmed my belongings for insurance purposes (in preparation for worst case scenario) and began planning what personal items I would grab in the event the winds shifted towards my home. Thankfully, they didn’t

The simultaneous Tubbs fire, a little further to the west, now tops the list of the most destructive wildfires in California history. Over 20 people died. The poorness of air quality extended throughout California as the smoke, soot, toxic gases, and particulate matter pushed its way across the state. Sore throats were prevalent in my community, and outdoor activity was put on hold. Air-quality alerts from AirNow.gov confirmed the pollution levels in my zip code were largely unhealthy. A myriad of health issues will escalate from this wildfire smoke. Those with asthma may end up filling more prescriptions, possibly visiting the ER. Children, elderly, pregnant people, or those with heart conditions and lung diseases may do the same.

What are your costs?

Apart from rising health costs, taxes are likely to increase. Last year’s Soberanes Fire in Central California cost over $206 million to extinguish, making it the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. The recent fires may likely exceed that. Currently, the Forest Service is spending more than 50 percent of its budget to suppress the Nation’s wildfires. Firefighting costs have routinely exceeded the annual budget, forcing dollars to be taken from nonfire programs – initiatives such as delivering clean air and water, protecting wildlife habitat, and offering opportunities for outdoor recreation. States are blowing through their fire budgets as well. For example, in 2014 California tapped into their reserves for an additional $70 million!

We’ll need changes in attitudes and policies

Like all extreme weather events, we are not able to control wildfire. “We have to learn to live with it and adapt, just like we do with droughts and flooding. Our current wildfire policies can’t protect people and homes,” says Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. A new study suggests we should begin helping forests, brush, and grasslands adapt to increasing temperatures. How? By intentional fires. “We should allow those areas to burn and adapt for future conditions. I think we see fire as a consequence, but it can also be a tool to help us keep pace with climate change,” Schoennagel says. The liabilities still need to be worked out, but this may be a viable option in strengthening your community’s natural landscape.

As America continues to warm, and the fire season continues to lengthen, there must also be more planning in residential development to withstand inevitable fires and avoid putting your family at financial risk. If you live in an existing community already, you may be aware of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA), passed by Congress in 2003 to provide funding and guidance for better forest management practices. One of the most important results of the HFRA was to incentivize communities to develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), aimed to better equip citizens with helpful resources in the event of a wildfire. Communities with a CWPP in place are given priority for funding of the reduction of hazardous fuels (any kind of living or dead vegetation that is flammable in the community).

Others are creating wildfire protection measures

Boulder County, Colorado created their own Wildfire Protection Plan, a nearly 100-page document, to help residents prepare in the event of a wildfire. The plan aims to “significantly increase and improve wildfire mitigation and preparedness efforts in advance of wildfires to accurately reflect the high risk and enormous costs associated with wildfire.” Their goal? To save lives, protect property, reduce risk, enhance the environment, and promote community. Boulder County also enacted an expert wildfire board, which helps property owners audit their homes for wildfire risks. If the risks are minimized, homeowners can get lower insurance premiums.

In nearby Summit County, residents taxed themselves in order to create a wildfire safety program that includes audits and direct subsidies to reduce wildfire risks in their community. The 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire changed the lives of hundreds of residents in Boulder County – 6,181 acres were burned, and 169 homes were destroyed. So, Boulder County acted. Maybe your town should do the same before disaster strikes.

What you can do

After the horror of the recent California wildfires, signs began popping up across the area featuring the phrase, ‘The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.’ And while that jargon may be appropriate after such a tragedy, it’s time for action. It’s time to take wildfire protection measures for the future. Here’s how:

  • Is your state protecting you against the threat of wildfires? Check out your grade at America’s Preparedness Report Card. The report gauges each state’s wildfire threat according to the number of days with high wildfire potential and the number of people living in and around forests, grass and shrub lands, and other natural areas.
  • Consider making fire-resistant upgrades to your home. Taking these steps in the event of a wildfire may ensure your home’s survival.
  • Read up on how to promote good health in the wake of a wildfire as well, such as limiting your time outdoors, running the air conditioner, and caution you should have during the clean-up process.
  • Check out the wildfire risk in your community on this map. It’s not just California and Colorado that pose growing risks. Maybe moving to a lesser risk area is an option. Look at our Where-to-Live Indicators to find out each town’s potential to protect residents from the predicted challenges of climate change.
  • Does your town have a CWPP in place? Consider creating one of your own!
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