Are the Californian Wildfires Really “Natural” Disasters?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Two narratives dominate accounts of wildfire causality: Careless or malevolent individuals (arsonists, ideally liberal Democrat donors) and climate change. From the New York Times:

While wildfires occur throughout the West every year, the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable. Wildfires are increasing in size and intensity in the Western United States, and wildfire seasons are growing longer. Recent research has suggested that heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.

In an earlier post I showed that it was not possible to give an account of this year’s wildfires in Canada without considering the impacts of tree plantation monocultures. More generally, wildfire post mortems must examine not two layers — climate and the individual — but a third as well: Political economy. In Canada, timber companies. In California, real estate development.[1]

The current literature buries political economy under the anodyne phrase “Wildfire and the Wildland Urban Interface” (WUI). From FEMA:

The WUI is the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human [i.e., real estate] development. It is the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels… The WUI area continues to grow by approximately 2 million acres per year. Approximately one in three houses and one in ten hectares are now in the WUI.

California has the greatest number of houses in the WUI. It’s easy for real estate developers to sell houses in the WUI because people[2] want to live in the woods:

“Many people like to live in places that happen to be susceptible to wildfires,” said study co-author Nicholas Irwin, an assistant professor in the UNLV department of economics. “It’s very attractive where the forest is, with beautiful trees in your backyard and unspoiled wilderness. People want to live there because of all of the natural amenities[3].”

From PNAS, “Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk“:

The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the area where houses and wildland vegetation meet or intermingle, and where wildfire problems are most pronounced. Here we report that the WUI in the United States grew rapidly from 1990 to 2010 in terms of both number of new houses (from 30.8 to 43.4 million; 41% growth) and land area (from 581,000 to 770,000 km2; 33% growth), making it the fastest-growing land use type in the conterminous United States. The vast majority of new WUI areas were the result of new housing (97%), not related to an increase in wildland vegetation. Within the perimeter of recent wildfires (1990–2015), there were 286,000 houses in 2010, compared with 177,000 in 1990. Furthermore, WUI growth often results in more wildfire ignitions, putting more lives and houses at risk. Wildfire problems will not abate if recent housing growth trends continue.

This “non-abatement” of real estate development in California WUIs puts a lot of housing investment at risk. From the Sacramento Bee:

More than $20 billion worth of property was destroyed in the 2017 and 2018 fires. Nearly 3 million homes lie within the various “severity zones” mapped by Cal Fire, with thousands sitting in the “very high fire hazard severity zones,” the agency’s designation for the worst risks. A McClatchy analysis of Cal Fire’s wildfire risk maps revealed that more than 350,000 Californians live in towns and cities that lie almost entirely within those riskiest areas. Notably, almost all of Paradise sat in the highest risk zone before last November’s Camp Fire destroyed most of the town’s housing stock and killed 85 people. According to Zillow, the Riverside area has the most homes facing significant wildfire risk: 113,520 properties worth a combined $40 billion.

Of course, the Wildland-Urban Interface isn’t shifting the wild into the urban by magic, or because little elves are pushing it; it’s being moved by real estate interests:

Last year, fires destroyed over 1,000 structures in southern California. Despite this, the healthy real estate market facilitates further redevelopment. In addition to the market, increased population benefits California’s tax base, further motivating increasing population in the state.

If you’re like me, you might be wondering how this could happen. One main reason is related directly to the second point—that there is a high demand for prime real estate in California, leading to an increase in development.

Instead of curbing development in high fire risk areas, the California government is facilitating urban growth.


* * *

California, the Federal government, and the insurance business have all taken measures to mitigate wildfires, though none (almost none) have addressed the issue at the level of political economy. Instead, we have developed techniques of (you guessed it) “personal risk assessment”, as well as programs of collective risk assessment: forestry, tech, code enforcement, the courts, and insurance companies (of which only the last seems likely to succeed). Let’s take a quick tour of all these mitigations.

Personal Risk Assessment. I searched Zillow for California real estate, and this property came up at the top right:

424 N Johnson Place, Porterville, CA 93257 (Porterville being near the Valley Fire of 2015). As it turns out, there’s a new site from Risk Factor alluringly titled “What will climate change cost you?.” I typed in the address, and this screen came up:

Hoo boy (note all the vegetation[4] close to the house. Fire risk!) Will Risk Factor’s site, at the individual level — a real estate broker closing a deal with some PMC type who wants to work from home while looking out at Nature — make any difference at all? I’m guessing no, based on experience with personal risk assessment in our ongoing Covid pandemic. I think people think “It will never happen to me” along with “anyhow, I’m insured” (which we’ll get to).

Now to collective risk assessment in the form of tinkering round the edges public policy.

First, forestry. Unsurprisingly, the Biden Administration’s efforts have been trivial, and fail to address real estate development (a.k.a. WUI encroachment) at all:

Using chainsaws, heavy machinery and controlled burns, the Biden administration is trying to turn the tide on worsening wildfires in the US west through a multibillion-dollar cleanup of forests choked with dead trees and undergrowth.

Yet one year into what is envisioned as a decade-long effort, federal land managers are scrambling to catch up after falling behind on several of their priority forests for thinning even as they exceeded goals elsewhere. And they have skipped over some highly at-risk communities to work in less threatened areas, according to data obtained by the Associated Press, public records and congressional testimony.

If a latter-day King Canute sought to hold back wildfire instead of the tide, this is the approach he might take.

Second, tech. From the Santa Barbara News-Press:

California is deploying new tools – including AI, satellites, cameras, drones, and real-time intelligence alongside its largest standing army of firefighters and a fleet of aerial firefighting unmatched in number anywhere else on the planet.

Gov. Gavin Newsom joined state fire officials in Grass Valley to talk about the preparations that are taking place and the tools available to, and developed by California for seasons such as the one expected./p>

“In just five years, California’s wildfire response has seen a tech revolution. We’re enlisting cutting-edge technology in our efforts to fight wildfires, exploring how innovations like artificial intelligence can help us identify threats quicker and deploy resources smarter. And with the world’s largest aerial firefighting force and more firefighters on the ground than ever before, we’re keeping more Californians safer from wildfire,” Gov. Newsom announced.

Let me know how that works out. Somewhat more effective — at least ultimately — because actually addresssing real estate development–

Third, code enforcement From the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction:

The International Wildland-Urban Interface Code has established minimum building code standards which can improve home survivability from wildfires. Although technically designed for international use, these model codes have primarily been adopted within the United States and adapted for local jurisdictions’ use. For example, in California, construction in the WUI and other hazardous areas must comply with Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, the state’s variation of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code. Compliance with these WUI building codes can prevent structure ignition[5], but the international codes and their site-specific variations (such as Chapter 7A) are relatively recent standards and often apply only to new construction. Codes enacted today may protect structures built in the future, but would not provide immediate protection in WUI areas.

More effective, since real estate development can actually be halted–

Fourth, the courts. One example from New York Magazine:

[Centennial’s] Tejon Ranch is an especially egregious place to put a brand-new mini-city. Here in the foothills, the risk of wildfire is already very high, and adding humans makes a spark more likely, meaning the state will be forced to mount a costly defense of people and property. And then there’s the challenge of supporting 60,000 people essentially in the middle of nowhere — at least 30 miles from any major job centers or public transit — along with all the cars needed to haul them around and maintain their daily lives. These arguments in the lawsuit from Climate Resolve — which sued successfully to stop a freeway from being built in the nearby High Desert — are the latest in a quarter-century saga of legal attempts to prevent development at Tejon Ranch.

And from The Real Deal:

A Lake County Superior Court judge ruled this week that the so-called Guenoc Valley Project can’t move forward until planners figure out what would happen should a mass evacuation sends thousands of residents fleeing down the small country roads that lead to the community.

The development, proposed by Lotusland Investment Group of San Francisco, features the homes along with a golf course, culinary school and five boutique hotels on 25 square miles of rolling hills snuggled between Sonoma and Napa counties — but on land that has been hit by fires four times in the last 10 years, and 11 times since 1952, according to the suit.

Finally, the Big Kahuna: The insurance business:

But State Farm’s exit from California last month due to wildfire hazards caused a stir.

“So now that they’ve bowed out, that’s going to be a real issue, especially in those heavy fire markets where you’re paying premium for that,” Josh Altman, co-founder of The Altman Brothers, told Yahoo Finance Live. “Now, that’s going to be a major, major blow to those properties.”

State Farm cited “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market” for its decision.

The move from State Farm follows AIG’s announcement last year that it was leaving the California market. AIG recently stated that it was limiting property insurance coverage in New York, Delaware, Florida, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, according to the Insurance Journal.

And last week, Nationwide announced “it is taking [action] to mitigate risk and manage the personal and commercial lines portfolios in the current environment.” Although no details have been outlined regarding which personal insurance lines will be impacted, the changes vary by state and territory, according to the Insurance Journal.

As more insurers leave California it could morph into an impending issue as costs rise making homeownership pricier than it presently is with mortgage rates at 6.75%, Scott Sheldon, branch manager at New American Funding, told Yahoo Finance.

If insurance rates get high enough — or if insurance isn’t possible — will that bring real estate development in California’s WUIs to a halt? Time will tell[6].

* * *

I don’t really have a policy recommendation here, other than at least freezing real estate development in wildfire-prone areas, an unrealistic proposition (“not politically feasible,” and how to grandfather existing properties?). Perhaps the insurance industry will stop the madness to avoid its own collapse, but the magic of the marketplace hasn’t been working too well lately, has it? At least for most of us. I hate to say “Let it all burn,” but isn’t that where we are?

So to remind us all that a different world was and is possible, I’ll close with this alternative approach to fire from Charles C. Mann:

Like people everywhere, Indians survived by cleverly exploiting their environment. Europeans tended to manage land by breaking it into fragments for farmers and herders. Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did (about 1.5 million acres of terraces still exist in the Peruvian Andes), but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes. A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. The first white settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks—they could drive carriages through the woods. Along the Hudson River the annual fall burning lit up the banks for miles on end; so flashy was the show that the Dutch in New Amsterdam boated upriver to goggle at the blaze like children at fireworks. In North America, Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms. When Indian societies disintegrated, forest invaded savannah in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Texas Hill Country. Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? “The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so” after Columbus, William Denevan wrote, “and for some regions right up to the present time.”

Here, the very concept of a WUI is irrelevant; the Indians worked on a continental scale. A different political economy indeed…


[1] Many California wildfires have also been caused by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which has not seemed to believe that clearing trees and brush away from its power lines is part of its corporate mission; see NC here, here, and here. Now they are changing their tune, and have asked for a $7 billion Federal loan to bury their power lines. For the purposes of this post, I will assert that the location of PG&E power lines is a function of real estate development.

[2] People who can afford housing, that is. “To keep a house payment below 30% of your income after putting 20% down, a person would need to earn roughly $16,693 per month or $200,316 per year – just to buy a median-priced home in California.” So when we talk about houses burning down in California wildfires, the odds, at least if the house is new, are that we are not talking about working class Californians.

[3] A tree is not an “amenity.” This is the vile “ecosystem services” paradigm rearing its ugly head again.

[4] I give the sellers points for the xeriscaping.

[5] Granting that structure ignition were prevented on the ground, code won’t address power lines, other environmental factors like roads and grasses, and of course the damage to the “wild” itself, including trees, animals, water, air, etc.

[6] I would expect a push for government insurance, as for people whose houses are on flood plains or on the ocean shore.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Anthony G Stegman

    Back when Arnold (Ahnald) Schwarzenegger was California governor he proposed a $50 annual tax on all residential parcels throughout the state to fund the cost of fighting wildfires and provide insurance to those unable to obtain private insurance. His proposal didn’t gain much traction and was ultimately withdrawn. In order to help the real estate development industry’s continued growth it won’t surprise me at all if the governor and other politicos put forth another attempt to peanut butter spread the costs of fire insurance, in effect directly subsidizing those who choose to live in the Wildland Urban Interface. In order to combat rising sea levels SF Bay Area politicos have been pushing ballot measures to add a parcel tax to fund the building of seawalls and other mitigations to protect valuable commercial property along the bay. This too would be a direct subsidy to wealthy corporations such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, all whom have office complexes threatened by rising sea levels. We all need to be wary of ongoing attempts to socialize costs while the benefits largely go to private interests.

  2. Wukchumni

    WUI is me, Porterville seems pretty safe from my standpoint-although the risk is heightened especially by rightfully frightened insurance companies. I’m aware of the risk and have done my best to mitigate something wicked this way comes.

    Add in the fact that many out of the way roads in the southern Sierra Nevada have yet to be fixed from winter damage, forget about firefighting vehicles and bulldozers if lightning hits in that neck of the woods.

    Every few years I go through native trees in the vicinity of the house and pull or cut off dead branches, and its amazing how many new dead limbs are on trees that I pruned before, the trees sacrificing formerly living limbs to keep on keeping on in the punishing 3 year drought, this combined with some of the highest and thickest dead grasses i’ve yet seen, its as if she has designs for the land.

    The canary in the coal mine as far as climate change is concerned here in Cali are Giant Sequoias which managed to stay alive through thick and thin for thousands of years and only now are they burning up.

    Of course, by not allowing forests to burn essentially since the defining fire way back when, the Big Burn of 1910, we’ve added so much fuel that would have never been there, so include us as an accomplice to their decline.

  3. Rip Van Winkle

    AIG beating State Farm out the door speaks volumes. Years ago the saying was, “AIG can always smell blood in the water!”, meaning they were on hunt to make a killing on opportunistic underwing, especially when Uncle Hank was there. As it turned out many times, “the blood turned out to be their own”, on the claims side.

    Also Personal Lines (home, auto) is way more regulated, including rate constraints , than Business insurance in every state. So at some point it makes sense for the insurer to simply bail.

    Let’s see what Chubb does with their Masterpiece (high end clientele) book in Cali.

  4. MT_Wild

    The interaction between climate change and invasive grasses in the fire cycle it’s an interesting one. There’s models out there that predict areas of the great basin in California, Nevada, maybe even portions of Oregon, will become too hot and dry for even annuals like cheatgrass. Of course by this point that’s all there’ll be so once it burns we’ll be back to bare rock and soil but at least the fires will stop.

    Homeowners Insurance Company’s are really good about making people thin their trees to maintain their policies. I haven’t heard anything about making people treat invasive annual grasses, But it would be a great idea especially in the WUI.

  5. Carolinian

    This article drew some comments when it came out.

    The effectiveness of prescribed burning is exaggerated. There is a place for it in fire management strategies. Still, people looking for a “silver bullet” with prescribed burning or “Indian burning” are ignoring the problems and hyping the benefits far beyond what they can achieve.

    Nevertheless, under some conditions, prescribed burning can be a helpful tool. Studies suggest that 99.7 to 99.8% of all prescribed fires stay within their boundaries and achieve the intended prescription; an even more significant percentage avoids damage to homes and other assets. Some regions of the country, such as the Southeast, use prescribed burning successfully. And it can be helpful in the West if one understands its limits.

    And here’s his main point.

    People do not understand that we are not in the same “historic” conditions as in the last couple of hundred years. It is much drier. It is essentially climate that has controlled fire size and spread, and the role of human fire “suppression” is exaggerated.

    As late as the 1970s, glaciers were growing in the PNW, and the climate was significantly cooler and moister. That is when prescribed burning got its “start,” so to speak, as an agency policy. But we don’t have those conditions today.

    Implementing a “safe” prescribed burn requires a lot of preparation and many human resources. You can have to mobilize many firefighters to the site to make sure you retain control. If we treated prescribed burns the way we treat “wildfire” and got 50-100 guys at each prescribed burn, you might be able to retain control, but this is not how they are done.

    In other words burners beware.

    1. some guy

      Well, yes . . . . after a hundred years of total wall-to-wall fire suppression which has given the woods a hundred years to build up vast masses of ground and near-ground-level fuel loads which thousands of years of ” Indian Burning” assiduously prevented from building up to begin with . . . prescribed burns would be awfully dangerous now.

      One wonders how much fire-safer these California forests would still be even given the recent dryer climate if they had been maintained in their Indian Burning Maintainance steady-state that existed until the California Holocaust of the Indian Nations and the fire suppressionism which came after.

      One wonders why the author of this article was so determined to withhold credit where credit was due, namely to Indian Burning. I would note that the grand Giant Sequoias did not burn down during the Medieval Megadrought which I bet was at least as dry as things are now. Of course at that time the Indians had not yet been Holocausted, and their eco-burning had not yet been suppressed.

      1. JP

        Prescribed burns in the forest are good but very labor intensive. Indian burns never took place in the forest. The Yokuts burned on the valley floor to minimize grass and undergrowth. The more southern California natives burned the chaparrel to increase mule deer habitat.

        The forest, on the other hand, was burned by lightening strikes. These fires often accompanied with rain usually burned small areas, which over time created a mosaic of burned and recovering areas which also limited the spread of fire.

        The last 100 years of fire suppression have loaded the forest with a dead understory that burns like gasoline on a dry summer day. The fire that burned through the forest here in 2021 was extensive but, IMHO a good thing. Although there were hot spots that burned the canopy, by far and away the canopy is largely healthy and the understory is cleaned up.

        As far as human habitat, the house in Porterville is an absurd example of fire risk. It is in the middle of a city that is at minimum 10 miles from any significant wildfire risk. If there is anything Porterville needs it is shade. Those trees have no dead wood and there is no dead understory. There is really nothing that would sustain a fire except the house itself.

        Those people like myself that live in the woods have a responsibility to maintain safe conditions. Not so much to save their house from the forest fire but to save the forest from their house fire. Most have no idea how to steward the forest around them to maintain the shade and beauty while mitigating the fire risk. CalFire inspects properties yearly for adequate perimeter and the insurance companies would prefer no shade and scorched earth for at least 100 ft. This is the wrong approach.

        The simple fact is a crown fire is hard to start and harder to maintain. Most of the canopy is green and really doesn’t burn that well. Forest fires are mostly spread through dead understory and ladder fuels, which are low dead limbs that carry the fire to the canopy. the solution is to eliminate the dead understory and ladder fuels not for 100 feet from your house but to the limits of your property. If that is too much work or expense then you shouldn’t be living there.

        The problem is not people living in the forest except that the risk is the idiot who lives next door. People who move to the forest with no knowledge of prudent forest management and think it is the government’s job to make their environment fire safe or that they are safe because they have fire insurance need to be regulated. The problem is not political economy but I certainly agree that banning people (from procreating) would be a good first step.

    2. Wukchumni

      I’ve seen the benefit of the November 2016 Deadwood prescribed burn in Mineral King that must have had it’s share of Oh Shit! moments as it went a good 1/4 to 1/2 mile beyond the planned parameters and scorched a well known walk-through (from previous fires hundreds of years ago) 14 foot wide Giant Sequoia about 30 feet up the trunk on the Atwell-Hockett trail, and went hundreds of feet below the trail before they got a handle on it.

      As luck would have it, that same Sequoia was where the 2021 KNP Fire’s forward progress was stopped-in consuming the walk-through brobdingnagian in flames, but with everything beyond it burned 5 years prior, that was that.

    3. Henry Moon Pie

      It was a prescribed burn that got out of control last summer that burned up most of the forested part of Mora County in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos. The adobe we built back in the 80s survived, but it now overlooks a big landscape of burned trees.

  6. JBird4049

    Just to emphasize, much of the population lives in these areas because that is where they can (sort of) afford to live. Putting the blame on people living in old houses, trailer homes, and tents is to me is morally unjust. Now, there are still plenty of people who could afford to live elsewhere as well as fire, not proof, but heavily resistant, and those are the people I do not have sympathy for, aside from perhaps being flimflammed by those grifters call developers.

    Add the decades of mismanagement, a refusal to hire and pay for an adequate number of firefighters for years, communities connected by narrow, winding two lane roads with cliffs being on both sides. Again, there is also the problem of the, usually upper middle class, owners refusing to do the work of clearing the areas around their home, doing modifications like having a tiled roof, insisting on building or expanding their McMansion under the giant Redwoods or old oak trees (both of which are fire resistant especially old Redwoods, but bushes and homes are much, much less so) or are blocking the fire department from doing preventive fires because the resultant burns look bad. (Yes, some people are suicidal idiots. And whose childish demands does threaten other people and their homes, neighborhoods, and towns.). It is actual nightmare fuel, but I guess some people just do not have an imagination, nor the desire to see some readily available pictures of past fires.

    To be fair, people are caught between the need for housing, previously fairly safe areas being not, the refusal by too many to pay the taxes needed, and with the state and local governments refusing to plan or budget for the changes most people saw a decade or two ago. We are talking millions of people, many if not most of them in the much poorer, conservative Red rim areas of the state often with local governments dominated, from what I can tell, by the more well off libertarian pinheads, which ultimately are not much different than the neoliberal a-holes in the blue coastal areas. They get to the same destination using different routes.

    The fact that the California legislature has a Blue Democratic supermajority becoming more insanely pro Identity Political and dominated by tech and development being faced by an increasingly deranged Red Republican mini minority means in reality the entire red rim and much of the coastal blue population just do not matter. For the various governments, this has included, until it got burnt out of them, the increasing risks of catastrophic fires, which is still focused on the upper middle class and the wealthy. As usual, the poor can go hang. But hey, personal risk assessment it is.

    1. vao

      doing modifications like having a tiled roof

      Tiled roofs make fires a bigger problem? Could you explain the mechanism?

      1. some guy

        Maybe it meant to say that tiled roofs are a fire hazard reduction mechanism which people refuse to do, just like refusing to have a plant-free sterile bare soil zone around their houses.

          1. JBird4049

            Sorry. I was unclear. Tiles make a roof fire resistant. Often it is burning cinders landing on the roof that starts the house fire.

            1. vao

              Thanks. I think that writing not doing modifications like having a tiled roof” would have parsed flawlessly.

  7. JustAnotherVolunteer

    Northwester here – I highly recommend the Watch Duty app

    A volunteer and calfire driven project that covers most of the western states and offers near real time alerts and the map includes some features like planned proscribed burns that don’t show up on other apps. There has been a noticeable jump in fires as the heat climbs this week and a lot of planned burns dropped off the map.

    Keeping an eye on fires is part of the spring and summer reality here now – in my case it’s more smoke then wildfire but we are all effected.

    Wuk – you and your trail buddies might be interested in participating in the reporting end of this effort. I’m a townie so I’ll be donating money to the cause.

  8. judy sixbey

    Weathered a near miss with an EF2 tornado last week. Lost at least 30 beautiful hardwoods, some close to 100 years old. The mess and cleanup is daunting but the house was unscathed. Wildfire is our moderate risk according to the disaster map. This we knew when we moved here 20 years ago. Family land. Family has been here 150 years so I guess we will battle it out.

  9. Sub-Boreal

    As a postscript to your earlier piece about the Canadian wildfires, on Thursday the British Columbia Forest Practices Board issued a report entitled Forest and Fire Management in BC: Toward Landscape Resilience. [“Resilience” seems to have replaced “sustainability” as the buzzword de jour.]

    The full report recommends adoption of “landscape fire management” in order to deal with the legacy of decades of overly-zealous (not their words) fire suppression. From a quick skim, the report doesn’t appear to identify conventional management practices as a contributing factor to elevating fire hazards by favouring more fire-prone conifer monocultures.

    You may be amused to read the section (p.14) where California is set out as an example to emulate: “The Board views California’s action plan as a shining example that could guide
    BC in developing a similar plan”.

    Along with lots of other places, my little College on the Tundra is in the middle of recruiting a wildland fire scientist; anyone with the foresight to do their PhD in that field 5-10 years ago can have their pick of jobs right now!

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      “Resilience” seems to have replaced “sustainability” as the buzzword de jour”

      I believe this is meant to mark the transition from being able to prevent disastrous climate change to having to live with it. Like “living with Covid,” what the really mean is dying with Covid or climate change.

  10. KFritz

    A little more than 30 years ago, yours truly rented an in-law unit in the South Oakland CA Hills (WUI country), in a house with unfinished wood siding, which would have ignited like a match head in any fire. I carried renter’s insurance, and, needless to say, no inspection of said dwelling was ever made. In a rational world my insurance premium would have been much higher. If the insurance industry cared about the WUI, they’d at least inspect insured properties.

    BTW, Porterville is in the South San Joaquin Valley (at the foot of the foothlls), hundreds of miles from the Valley Fire.

  11. Jeremy Grimm

    The massive Forest fires are one reflection of the gross mismanagement of the Earth’s resources by today’s Civilization.

    The destruction of old growth forests obligates timber companies to plant their tree plantations to mollify tree-huggers. The careless “We plant two for each tree we harvest” approach to growing those tree plantation monocultures do their part to promote the forest fires that plague our summers. If forest fires are the chief concern per se, I doubt the slash left after clear-cutting and slash burning poses much forest fire risk. Timber companies would gladly turn forests into moonscapes if fire risk were the problem.

    The PNAS paper referenced by this post begins with this statement:
    “When houses are built close to forests or other types of natural vegetation, they pose two problems related to wildfires. First, there will be more wildfires due to human ignitions. Second, wildfires that occur will pose a greater risk to lives and homes, they will be hard to fight, and letting natural fires burn becomes impossible.”
    I remain skeptical of the arguments and conclusions drawn in this paper. “Housing development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) greatly exacerbates wildfire problems and other environmental issues in the United States, and globally.” Arriving at that conclusion hardly requires extensive datasets and deep analysis. Housing intermixed in forested areas greatly adds to the financial and human risks of any forest fire. Human started forest fires require human access to forested areas which WUI increases and simplifies. The implicit conclusion I read into this paper — suggested to me by its title phrase “raises wildfire risk” — the conclusion that increases of WUI [I hate the growing proliferation of acronyms!!!] is one of the root causes of the now yearly massive forest fires. It is a misdirection away from other causes — like climate change. Climate change creates conditions to aggravate and promote forest fires. Climate change kills and weakens trees, dries the soil and air and moves the dry winds that stoke and spread fires.

    But without forest fires many of the trees in the u.s. have been dying. This is a risk that worries me. Where I live, the pine trees killed by bark beetle infestations stand in ghost forests scattered among the deciduous trees. I have read that maple trees are threatened by the Northward drift of hotter climate. I recall reading that many plants are harmed by the increasingly chaotic shifts of the weather blowing midsummer hot then freezing cold from one week to the next blurring the transition of seasons. The climate is making an increasingly rapid and substantial transition. Living conditions suitable for many of the things living on Earth today are rapidly shifting around. Some animals can pick up and move to higher latitudes. Trees have a much more difficult time moving.

    While I am as concerned about the financial risks forest fires pose to housing as I am about the financial risks of building on the coasts and waterways, both concerns are relatively trivial compared to the existential risks Humankind faces from the climate transition. Some of the rapid shifts that occurred in past climate transitions are likely to occur in the present transition. Indeed the step change in the level of atmospheric CO2 which Humankind accomplished in a mere century almost guarantees a very rough ride for the near future… and the near future looms much nearer than comfortable. I am an old man and it appears more and more likely I will be along for some of this rough ride into the future.

  12. spud

    californias tree’s might actually stand a chance during drought years, but the pollution from free trade is choking them to death.

    wild fires spread quickly if all of the tree’s die.

    “Free trade lets countries export their pollution as production plants move to nations with cheaper labor and lower environmental standards. Harvard’s Jeffrey Frankel wrote in a report to the Swedish Globalization Council in 2009 that a large scale increase of production can bring about a “race to the bottom” for national environmental regulations. He raises the hope, however, that new production facilities can bring cleaner techniques and innovative power production. ”

    california’s tree’s are being choked killed by the millions because of free trade.

    “A similar study of global air pollution drift in 2014, focusing on China and the US, made comparable findings, but included an important factor missing from the more recent study: production for export. Among other things, the scholars of the older study asked how much of the Chinese air pollution drifting to the Western US was occasioned specifically in the production of exports for world markets (including the top destination for Chinese manufactures, the US.)

    The answer? In 2006, up to 24% of sulfate concentrations over the western United States were generated in the Chinese production of goods for export to the US.[5] Applying these findings to the more recent study, it’s likely that a significant percentage of the Asian nitrogen oxides now choking the US West were also emitted in the production of goods destined for the US.

    In other words, it’s meaningless to speak of “Asian pollution” in this context. Though the pollution was emitted in Asia, it properly belongs to the country/ies on whose behalf and at whose behest it was produced. Even more accurately, the pollution finally belongs to the transnational corporations (TNCs) who are the real drivers and beneficiaries not only of offshoring, but also of insatiable consumerism through marketing and obsolescence.”

    “From the production, sale and transport of globally-traded commodities, to the shipping of the resulting waste back to China,[15] and now to the profitable ‘adaptation’ to the ghastly air pollution,[16] TNCs are the main drivers and beneficiaries of this system. In other words, Chinese production and exports are dominated by US and other foreign corporations, and – like the pollution drifting across the globe – are not really ‘Chinese’ at all.[1

    This ‘Asian pollution’ may have an even deeper connection to the American west over which it is now drifting. The world’s largest surface mines are the Black Thunder mines, in the Powder River Basin straddling the Wyoming/Montana border. The mine’s owner and operator, Arch Coal, exports sizable amounts of this government-owned coal to places like China, where it is burned to power the factories that produce American consumer goods.[18]”


    “Two environmental groups, Pacific Environment and, worked with prominent maritime researchers to track goods imported by the 15 largest retail giants in the United States. They then quantified the greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants associated with those imports, usually ferried across the oceans on cargo ships running on dirty bunker fuel. In 2019, importing some 3.8 million shipping containers’ worth of cargo generated as much carbon dioxide emissions as three coal-fired power plants. These shipments also produced as much smog-forming nitrous oxide as 27.4 million cars and trucks do in a year, according to the report.

    “Our report affirms that these retail giants’ dirty ocean shipping is fueling the climate crisis,” said Madeline Rose, climate campaign director for Pacific Environment and the study’s lead author.”

    its simply a stunning number: 20% of all carbon emissions world wide has been traced to free trade.

    “If you look at just the shipping involved in international trade, it’s something of the order of 20%, I think, of our carbon production comes out of the entire mechanics of shipping goods around the planet. And we realize we’ve massively overshot the capacity of the biosphere to support our industrial sedentary civilization. So, one way to reduce that is by reducing international trade.”

    1. some guy

      The only way to reduce international trade is through brute legal force. Small countries don’t have the power to exert such brute legal force, and never will have. Some big-enough countries, like the US, “could” have the power to exert such brute legal force against international trade aggression against their national existence if the supporters of brute legal force against international trade could somehow tear down and destroy the pro-international-trade establishments which currently dominate their country’s governments.

      Americans cannot do a damn thing about international trade unless and until Americans for protectionism can tear down and destroy the Free Trade Conspirators which currently own and run America’s government. If we could replace our current anti-American government with a pro-American government, we could abolish and forbid imports from any country which emits more carbon or nitrogen oxides or any other global heater gas per unit of production than what we emit for that same unit of production. Until we can do that, its Skycarbon Chicken all the way down.

      ( And if people operating at a junior-high-school level of “calling out hypocrisy” respond by saying that approach would give any country with an even lower rate of heater-gas emissions per unit of production than America’s to ban imports from America into their countries, I would respond by saying . . . ” Well of course it would. And a good thing too”. Because that is how we could all force eachother into a Forced March To The Top instead of the current Race To The Bottom which International Free Trade is designed to trap us all in).

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        If we could adjust to slower delivery times, much sea traffic could be wholly wind-driven. With only slightly slower delivery, wind-assisted ships could be used. The technology has already been developed and tested. Pressure needs to be applied to the IMO and owners.

        1. some guy

          Yes, that would help with the shipping-itself contribution to heater-gas skydumping. But it would not address the problem of production-aggression from areas of higher heater-gas skydumping output per unit of thingmaking production into areas of lower heater-gas skydumping output per unit of thingmaking production.

          The only way that areas with their own native production at less heater-gas skydumping per unit of thingmaking production can protect their own lower skyheater-gas emission production is by banning the import of things from areas with higher skyheater gas emission per unit of production. And the only way such countries can reconquer their right to do that is by abrogating all the Free Trade Agreements they have and by withdrawing from every Free Trade Organization they are in, such as the WTO.

          Since our current anti-American Two Party System supports the International Free Trade Conspiracy against America, we would need a pro-American Party devoted to defecting America out of the International Free Trade Conspiracy System.

          What would Jesus do?
          What would Stalin do?
          What would Scooby do?

        2. spud

          if you think you can rope the devastation caused by free trade under regulation and law, think again,

          Thousands of ships fitted with ‘cheat devices’ to divert poisonous pollution into sea

          Global shipping companies have spent billions fitting vessels with “cheat devices” that will allow them to pollute water while still satisfying new emissions legislation, environmental groups have warned.

          More than $12bn (£9.7bn) has been spent on the devices, known as open-loop scrubbers, which extract sulphur from the exhaust fumes of ships that run on heavy fuel oil.”

          so they simply clean up the smoke stack, and divert it into the water.

          there is only one way out of the mess bill clinton caused with free trade, that is to eliminate free trade world wide and restore democratic control.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The answer? In 2006, up to 24% of sulfate concentrations over the western United States were generated in the Chinese production of goods for export to the US.[5] Applying these findings to the more recent study, it’s likely that a significant percentage of the Asian nitrogen oxides now choking the US West were also emitted in the production of goods destined for the US.

      That is really interesting. Perhaps I can expand that to a future post. It certainly does shed new light on the theory of comparative advantage.

  13. thousand points of green

    Was the Great Chestnut Forest also made by Indian burning?

    I remember reading years ago that American chestnut trees at or over a certain threshhold size were moderately fire-tolerant or even fire-resistant. Any moderate fire sweeping through would burn away some of the non-chestnut brush and non-chestnut trees leaving the chestnuts to keep growing. This memory lead me to search the yahoo to see if there are any on-line referrences to chestnuts-and-fire-ecology. And I found this . . .

    and this . . .

    Which leads me to wonder whether the relevant Indian Nations managed fire over millions of acres of likely chestnut habitat to favor chestnut versus non-chestnut and slowly grow into existence the millions of acres of chestnut-dominant forest we had here till the blight. ( Which leads me to wonder further whether managing for chestnut and other mast-species might have been for running landscape gardens to grow mass quantities of turkeys, passenger pigeons, squirrels and other such things to go with the deer and elk and buffalo.)

    By the way, I separately remember having read that chestnut trees had/have some kind of “immunity collar” at and just a little above ground level. The blight always attacked the trees from several feet above ground level to higher than that. And the blight didn’t kill the tree within days or weeks. It seemed to take a year or two ( if I remember correctly). Which makes me think it wasn’t just brute-force decaying the cambium but rather insinuating its lamprey-self threads into the cambium and intercepting all the green-leaf photo-food made by the tree up in the crown for shipping down the cambium to the roots for storage, root-growth, and processing for worked-up growth products to send back up the tree.

    If that was the fungus’s mode of attack, it means the fungus was depriving the root system and by extension the tree of the nutri-flows needed for food-storage, growth, and then mere survival. And even so, the fungus couldn’t totally kill the root system. It certainly couldn’t make it down past the “collar of immunity” to physically infect the root system. So those legacy root systems kept sending up new sprouts. Which grew till blight killed them.

    So if trunk and sprout death was by lampreyish bleeding rather than near-instant decay, one wonders whether cutting down an infected American chestnut tree or sappling immediately upon infection safely below the zone of infection would allow a not-yet semi-starved root system to immediately begin growing some new sapling-sprouts with full food-storage-based vigor. And one wonders whether doing that every time blight first appeared on a trunk would allow the root system to keep building net strength and size from early infection cut-down to early infection cut-down. Has anyone ever researched that possibility?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > If that was the fungus’s mode of attack, it means the fungus was depriving the root system and by extension the tree of the nutri-flows needed for food-storage, growth, and then mere survival. And even so, the fungus couldn’t totally kill the root system. It certainly couldn’t make it down past the “collar of immunity” to physically infect the root system. So those legacy root systems kept sending up new sprouts. Which grew till blight killed them.

      Like “The Last of Us” with cordycepts, except for chestnut trees. I can’t say, though I do have a dim memory of the collar concept (NC on chestnut trees here, here, and here).

        1. mrsyk

          One thesis offered up by the author was that by sustaining the fungus by offering up more and more shoots, the trees assisted in their own extinction.

  14. some guy

    About PGE, the assertion that . . . ” For the purposes of this post, I will assert that the location of PG&E power lines is a function of real estate development.” certainly seems like a safe and reasonable assertion to make.

    Which does, though, beg the question . . . isn’t PGE’s studied refusal to cut branches away from and around its lines a studied refusal on the part of PGE’s own internal leadership, wherever those lines might be running? And wasn’t also PGE’s own free internal choice to leave old and ancient legacy infrastructure un-repaired, renewed or replaced to just sit there sparking and popping and festering till it got a fire started? Perhaps that whole stance was taken in a cleverly cynical ploy to extort “pay us to bury our lines” loans from the Fed Gov.

    Isn’t there still a law on California’s books allowing the California Governor in particular or government in general to seize and run electric utilities in the case of imminent danger and emergency? A power which Gray Davis studiedly refused to use? If there is such a law still on the books, wouldn’t the government of California still have the power to seize and run PGE to relieve the steady wildfire emergency which PGE’s depraved indifference to human life currently and perma-long-standingly poses?

    Perhaps Californians who think it does, and would like to seize PGE and run it for human safety and benefit, could start a Seize PGE Party and run people for office on the one issue of Seizing PGE and running it for the safety and benefit of Californians.

    ” Its just a thought ” . . . . as Beau would say.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Isn’t PGE’s studied refusal to cut branches away from and around its lines a studied refusal on the part of PGE’s own internal leadership, wherever those lines might be running? And wasn’t also PGE’s own free internal choice to leave old and ancient legacy infrastructure un-repaired, renewed or replaced to just sit there sparking and popping and festering till it got a fire started?

      Absolutely. But that post is not this post. “Proper scope is the royal road to project success.”

  15. Benny Profane

    A columnist for the Denver Post, Ed Quillen, came up with the concept of Stupid Zones. Not really an argument to end development, just a way of saying, fine, you want to build a 4000 ft. home with a cedar shake roof deep in the woods down a narrow road? You’re on your own, cowboy. Dont expect any help when the fires roll in.

    The Marshall fire outside of Boulder is a great example to me of dumb development. Plop a modern suburban development that is essentially a pile of all sorts of fuel in a dry, grassy plain that frequently is subjected to 100 mph winds off the mountains, and, well, what do you expect?

  16. LY

    One of the biggest chunk of flammable forest on the East Coast is the Pine Barrens in NJ. Development has been restricted, and the primary agriculture that occurs are cranberry bogs and blueberry farms.

    ‘What grew back in the Pine Barrens were scrubby, short-statured pines that created the necessary fuel for frequent wildfires. “Imagine a whole forest made up of tinder and kindling,” Gallagher says. These transitional forests burned with much more frequency and intensity than fires from recent memory, according to Gallagher.’

    Other interesting tidbits:
    – Towns in the area are east of a body of water, due to prevailing winds.
    – Cranberry farms have been regularly setting prescribed burns since 1800s.
    – Pine Barrens are a prescribed burn laboratory, since key species require fire to reproduce, and it has a flat geography.

  17. Kouros

    When I was quite young, I dreamt about becoming a forester. Then I went to a specialized highschool where was a class for forest operations, in order to be able to take the admission exam to the only forestry school (faculty) in Romania. The competition was fierce, about 20 candidates per spot, and I managed to squeek in.

    I specialized in forest management and worked for the Romanian Institute of Forest Management and Research for about 5 years before emigrating in what I thought to be the dream of any forester: Canada.

    My god, that was a flop. The North American continent, geared for profit, does forestry like surface mining. While they might study silvicultural practices, so far I have not seen any evidence of being applied.

    The science of silviculture provide the array of techniques not only to remove trees from the forest, but more importantly, to create the appropriate conditions for a new generation of forest to get established via natural seedling, and to also foster the growth of trees, by continuous thinning at all ages. Thus one maintains the biodiversity of the forest and a mixed varity of native trees, gets new generation going for free, and gets good volumes by allowing selected trees to make it to the desired age, as in 100, 120, 150 years cycle.

    I am not sure how much has been left in Romania after the change in the political system, but it seems that not that much. Profit, greed, and corruption has definitely put the mark on the new management practices there.

    Here, in North America, I don’t think there is a chance they will change how they do business. Becuse greed, profit, and expediency reign supreme…

  18. JonnyJames

    We live in CA, State Farm dropped our homeowners insurance. We have to pay roughly TRIPLE the former rate under the so-called California Fair Plan. I guess we should be lucky to have insurance at all, but is it worth it?

    The house was built in 1954, and Cal Fire inspected and gave it the OK for fire safety before we bought the property. That matters not to the insurance racket.

    PG&E gets away with murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, Rate-payers have to pay for their civil litigation, PR campaigns and obscene salaries/bonuses for senior management. They refuse to improve infrastructure and expect taxpayers and ratepayers to foot the bill while they pillage. It’s disgusting.

    The institutional corruption is plain for all to see, PG&E is the most hated corp in Nor Cal, (along with Comcast) and the crooks in State gov will do nothing about it. In our Phony PR Democracy, there is nothing voters can do. Don’t like it? Vote R, but they are just as bad or worse than their country club buddies, the D team. But people naively still believe in the fairy tale of US democracy.

    1. anon in so cal

      We also use CFP as we are in the high-fire risk hills.

      Some of California’s worst forest fires are linked to poorly maintained PG&E equipment.

      These fires include the 970,000 acre Dixie Fire, the Camp Fire (160,000 acres and 85 fatalities), and the Tubbs Fire (40,000 acres).

      The Dixie Fire began on July 13, 2021, beneath a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) 12-kilovolt power distribution line located on the northern side of the Feather River Canyon in a remote area above Highway 70 and Cresta Dam, midway between Paradise and Belden.[27][28] Transmission lines (also operated by PG&E) further down the canyon were the cause of the devastating and fatal Camp Fire in 2018.

      Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s new chief executive got a $6 million a year in salary and stock, plus a $3 million signing bonus, the bankrupt utility announced Tuesday in a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. The funds were supposed to be used for equipment maintenance.

      PG&E is a big donor to Newsom.

      When Newsom partied at French Laundry (violating pandemic protocol), it was for Jason Kinney’s birthday. Jason Kinney, of Axiom Advisors….

      “Kinney’s firm, Axiom Advisors, has lobbied on behalf of several companies seeking to sway decision-making in Newsom’s office, including Netflix and unsecured creditors of Pacific Gas & Electric, records reviewed by The Times show.”

      1. JonnyJames

        Thanks for bringing this up.
        But in our superficial PR democracy, the Gaviner wants to “save the planet”, he doesn’t like Trump, and he’s tall, handsome, and has good hair. The so-called liberals love him. Who cares if he’s as crooked as Lombard St.?

      2. JP

        I’m sure PG&E is an equal opportunity corruptor. They lobby both ways. Or are you saying a republican gov would never go there?

        1. JonnyJames

          Institutional corruption covers both sides of the D/R dictatorship. The politicians are merely puppets of oligarchy.

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