Should People Be Prevented From Living In Fire & Flood Prone Areas?

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There’s an old joke about a man who goes to his physician and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” To which the doctor offers this sage advice. “Don’t do that.” California, Oregon, and Washington are experiencing a rash of forest fires whose flames light up the night sky while the smoke from them blots out the sun during the day. The Louisiana shore has been pummeled by a hurricane while freak storms have popped up in Utah and Iowa.

We can debate until we are blue in the face about whether changes in the Earth’s climate are responsible for these events. Some insist the connection between natural disasters and anthropogenic climate change is as plain as the face on your nose. Others insist is is a hoax created by flesh eating child pornographers led by a deep state agent named Q. Far be it from us to choose between those competing beliefs. But it does verge on the idiotic to simply rebuild in such areas again and again, especially when taxpayers are footing the bill.

A recent survey by Bo MacInnis and Jon Krosnick on behalf of Resources For The Future (RFF) finds there is broad public support for doing something about natural disasters. According to the New York Times, 84% of those surveyed, including 73% of Republicans, support stricter building codes in risky areas and 57% support making it illegal to build in those areas. More than half of respondents favored paying people to move, including three-quarters of Democrats.

Ray Kopp is the vice president for research and policy engagement at RFF. He writes in the latest report, “We can see from these results that people have an aversion to the government telling them where to live, even when it’s proposed as an incentive rather than a requirement. People have more interest in government intervention to encourage fire prevention and help fight fires, but fewer people are interested in requirements that could place a burden on homeowners or restrict where people can live and work. Yet we still see that close to half of people support measures that would fundamentally change where humans spend time, like incentives to move or restrictions on development in disaster-prone areas. It’s clear that people are worried and deeply affected by these disasters.”

RFF natural disaster report
Credit: Resources For The Future

If there is such broad agreement across party lines, why are such measures not being taken? Primarily because government officials don’t care a flying fig leaf about what the people want. All they care about is campaign contributions from lobbying groups like the American Associations of Home Builders, whose members make their living building houses. Between 1990 and 2015, 32 million new homes were built in these areas experts call the wildland/urban interface. Only about 15% of the wildland-urban interface has been developed and further growth is expected.

Build, Baby, Build

Chuck Fowke, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, tells the New York Times the standards already in place across the nation are sufficient. New rules could “not only curtail homeownership and significantly hinder housing affordability,” he says, they could “also severely impact state and local economies.”

California enacted new statewide fire protection codes for new construction in 2008. The new codes are working but do nothing about pre-existing homes. In the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, California in 2018, 51% of the 350 single-family homes built to the new standards escaped damage. But of the 12,000 homes built before then, only 18 percent were undamaged.

In 1990, the Painted Cave Fire burned 427 homes and killed one person in the Santa Barbara area. That’s when the nearby community of Montecito took action. Its local fire protection district now works with residents to harden homes against fire, thins out native shrubs on private property, and pushed for changes to local building codes, such as wider driveways for fire engines. When the Thomas Fire struck the area in 2017, only seven houses were destroyed.

Part of the problem is that local communities want the higher taxes that come from allowing development in risky areas. They have no incentive to discourage such development because if there is a fire, the federal government picks up much of the cost of rebuilding. Larry Larson, senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers says cities and counties allow building in flood-prone areas in part because they know the federal government will pay most of the cost to rebuild after a disaster. “Locals can allow development and get all the taxes from development, and when the flooding or other natural disaster happens, the cost is too often picked up by the federal taxpayer,” he says.

Put It Out Or Let It Burn?

Forest management issues have been a political football for decades. In the West, the policy is to put every fire out as quickly as possible. In the Southeast, controlled burns are common and there is a much lower incidence of wildfires than on the Left Coast. Why there is such a divergence in what the best way is to confront forest fires is unclear.

Part of the answer is that there are millions of acres in the western part of the country that attract new home construction either because of the desire to live in peaceful rural areas or because the land is less expensive than it is near densely populated urban areas. And developers make big profits developing new housing areas near the wildland/urban interface. Another factor is there is enormous pressure on local governments from homeowners to rebuild their burned out or flooded homes as soon as possible after a natural disaster. Few stop to consider at that moment whether rebuilding in place is wise.

“Today fire is widely accepted as a tool for land management in the Southeast,” Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced tells the New York Times. But for the past century, putting out fires has been the priority of the National Forest Service. Many experts now believe that policy has created an environment that makes wildfires more likely. Today, the Forest Service spends 55% of its budget fighting fires, which leaves little left over for controlled burns. Dr. Kolden notes that many Indigenous communities have a long history of using fire to manage the landscape. “We should be empowering the people who know how to do this,” she says.

What About Climate Change?

Clearly rebuilding in high risk areas needs some careful thought. Putting things back to the way they were before is a recipe for future disasters to occur. And then there is the specter of climate change. Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory notes the effects of climate change on California’s fires so far “have arisen from what may someday be viewed as a relatively small amount of warming.”

The effects of climate change on wildfires isn’t linear but exponential he says, and the climate will respond slowly even to aggressive action to combat warming. Therefore, any lack of strong action on climate will yield far worse wildfires. “Things could be bad, or really bad, by 2050.” That’s OK. Many of us won’t be alive in 2050 and those who are can deal with the issue then. For now, let’s pump more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere so we can continue to enjoy our advanced standard of living.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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