The Impact of wildfires goes far beyond acres burned

Last summer the Caldor, Tamarack, and Dixie fires burned over 1.2 million acres across northern California and western Nevada. The impact of those three wildfires has gone far beyond acreage, adding to the already staggering suppression cost. 

“It is more that we are not spending enough upfront on mitigation so communities can be prepared before they occur,” explained Dr. Kimiko Barret in a recent media briefing. She is the lead wildfire research and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research organization based in Montana. 

In a report published in 2019 by the National Institute for Building Sciences, researchers noted that by exceeding fire-resistant building codes, homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), the taxpayer could effectively save on average $4 per every $1 spent. 

A table produced by the National Institute of Building Sciences highlights the benefit-to-cost ratios of mitigations for a variety of natural disasters. – image: courtesy of Richard Bednarski

Over a third of single-family homes in the United States are located in wildfire-prone areas, the WUI, and are at risk of being burned down. Wildfires have always been part of the ecosystem. Scientists have noted that fires come back to the same area at intervals. 

As more people have moved into the WUI, more wildfires are becoming disasters. Since 2005, over 120,000 structures have been burned by wildfires. Two-thirds of these have been in the state of California alone. 

“We know how to reduce risk to homes and neighborhoods and in effect create communities better prepared for wildfire risk,” said Barret. She emphasized the need for homeowners in the WUI to focus on retrofitting their homes to make them more fire-resilient. 

It should be noted that wildfires do not impact people the same way. Many lower-income populations and communities of color will be affected more so than more affluent communities. 

A chart produced by Headwaters Economics that highlights the unequal impact of wildfires – image: courtesy of Richard Bednarski.

Things like replacing a roof with non-flammable roofing tiles, clearing debris out of the gutters, building a non-flammable fence, or simply creating defensible space around the property. Home-hardening is a relatively new idea for homes in the intermountain west. But as we saw in last year’s extensive fire season, not a lot will stop a fire if the conditions are conducive to rapid fire growth. 

“Investing more in that upfront planning is more critical,” said Barret. She explained that we no longer have the choice of whether or not fire-resilient building codes are a good idea. “The building code is just one mitigation tool in that planning toolbox.”

Changes at every level of government are needed to address the infrastructure issue of the WUI. At the federal level, agencies can focus more resources and attention on fuel reduction. Things such as thinning and controlled burns are excellent tools to help build not just defensible space but replicate the natural cycle of wildfires. Incentivizing home hardening can be a way to encourage contractors to use fire-resistant construction methods. 

At the state level, new building codes can be enacted that promote the use of non-flammable building materials. Things such as fiber-cement siding and metal roofs are often relatively the same cost and provide a flame-proof surface. Additionally, the state can help in vegetation management throughout the WUI. 

At the local level, cities and counties can adopt zoning ordinances that favor wildfire-resilient communities. More initiatives around open space can be implemented in order to provide a wide swath of defensible space around forested communities. 

Lasting impact on water quality

When a home catches fire it is more likely to spread to other homes and increase the severity of a disastrous wildfire. The impact of a wildfire that burns through communities is long-lasting. 

“If our homes do catch fire, the homes themselves are going to burn much longer than the vegetation can and create fire embers that can travel several miles,” explained Dr. Erica Fisher. She is an assistant professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University.

When a home burns, it is releasing far more pollutants and toxins than the nearby forest. Things like televisions, paint, and untold amounts of plastic, all emit harsh volatile compounds when they burn into the air and water  

As a building burns longer, the heat from the flames seeps below ground. If the water lines are plastic, by far the most common type of water pipe, the excessive heat will cause the plastic to release toxins into the water. Things like benzene and benzoic acid then enter the municipal water supply, compounding the wildfire impact. These toxins are both carcinogenic and can have a lasting effect on the community. 

When a community is burning, negative pressure is created in the water system. When a home burns, this acts like a vacuum and sucks in burning ash and other debris from a home directly into the water supply. Dr. Fisher has seen this type of contamination across many fire-affected communities in her research. 

Other contaminants have been found like zinc in arsenic after a fire has burned through a community. 

The majority of communities across the west draw drinking water from forested watersheds. The threat to water quality is present and seen when the Dixie Fire tore through nearly the entire Feather River watershed, one of California’s largest and heavily relied upon. 

Retrofitting may be the best solution

”There is no money now in the infrastructure bill being dedicated to home hardening,” said Dr. Kimiko Barret. She mentioned for every dollar spent in mitigation saves four in suppression. 

Wildfires are costing more and more each year to suppress. The average is about $65 million per fire. 

As climate change and a history of forest mismanagement leads to more frequent and severe wildfires, the cost of suppression has been rising steadily over the past five years – image: courtesy of Richard Bednarski

Climate change is increasing the severity of these fires. With more people living within the WUI we may have to rethink how we build communities. In 2008, California adopted the international WUI code to focus on building more fire-resistant homes. 

It has been shown to help. The majority of the 18,000 structures that burned in Paradise, Calif. from the Camp fire in 2018 were built prior to 2008. This emphasizes the need to rebuild homes, hospitals, and schools to be more fire resistant. 

Moving forward both Dr. Barret and Dr. Fisher emphasized the need to update building codes to include more fire-resistant construction. People are not going to move away from the WUI because of the idea of a wildfire coming through town. In fact, many communities often rebuild right over the ashes, oftentimes with homes that are not fire-resistant. 

Focusing on retrofitting structures to better withstand a fire will not only save money in the long run but will reduce the impact on water quality and communities. While the thought of another community succumbing to wildfire seems overwhelming, Dr. Barret remains optimistic saying that “there is always hope.”

Born and raised in tiny Quincy, Calif, Richard obtained a B.A. in Anthropology and Photography, in addition to an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Nevada at Reno on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, where he is currently based. His words and photos have appeared in national and regional publications such as USA Today Reno Gazette-Journal, The Progressive, and the Sierra Nevada Ally. When not crafting stories that matter, Richard can be found traveling and camping with his wife and two daughters, tending a garden, baking bread, and playing the banjo.

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