Wildfire Experts Weigh Cost of Building vs. Cost of Life

November 15, 2018
Cabin in the woods
Photo: Unsplash/Roberto Nickson

Stop building homes in California's communities that are most in danger of wildfire damage, and make existing homes even more durable and resilient than they are already.

This is the direct, simple solution offered by wildfire and climate policy experts, while simultaneously recognizing that effectiveness won't make the solution more popular or more affordable, particularly for a state with short housing supply and alluring landscapes where so many seek to live. Popular and costly aside, more frequent and intense fires are expected as the global climate continues to change. Alice Hill, a senior adviser for climate resilience in the Obama administration, tells Fortune, “It’s a land-use issue,” adding that building fewer homes in danger zones, “we would still have the fires. But we wouldn’t have this kind of devastation.”

If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules. “Human lives are invaluable,” Rasker said. “Yeah, cost matters. But the cost of not doing the right thing is tragedy.”

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