Wildfires In California Create Staggering Costs

Over the past three weeks, more than 20,000 firefighters have battled nearly 1,800 fires in California and there's no immediate relief in sight. Timothy Duane, professor of environmental policy and land use at the University of California at Berkeley, talks with Linda Wertheimer about the economics of firefighting and how it has changed.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, a career spent reporting on the Supreme Court. But first, state officials in California have money worries beyond the overall anemic economy, the staggering cost of fighting the wildfires that are continuing to whip through the Sierra Nevada foothills. Over the past three weeks, more than 20,000 firefighters have battled nearly 1,800 fires, and there's no immediate relief in sight.

Timothy Duane is a professor of environmental policy and land use at the University of California at Berkeley, and he joins us from there. Welcome.

Dr. TIMOTHY DUANE (College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: The number of fires, the acres burned in California have grown along with the population, but the cost of fighting these fires seems to be going up even faster. What's changing?

Dr. DUANE: The key thing that's changing is that people are building in patterns in the woods on the landscape that are much more scattered. And therefore, it's much, much more difficult to fight these fires the way we used to fight them. We basically have to park our fire engine in front of every house and defend it, and the fire then is able to grow larger and to really consume a lot more of the landscape than otherwise it would have.

WERTHEIMER: So is that the way firefighters should be used, to save individual homes? Or should they be used to try to fight larger areas?

Dr. DUANE: We've made the choice that there are sort of three priorities. And the first priority is to protect life, and the second priority is to protect property. And the third priority is to protect natural resources. And when you have lives endangered or more property endangered, that takes precedence over natural resources.

WERTHEIMER: Well, California has a budget deficit of some 17 billion dollars. Governor Schwarzenegger, how is he proposing to pay for these fires?

Dr. DUANE: Well, he's proposed a surcharge tax on homes that would be different if you're in a high-risk area than if you're in a low-risk area. That would raise about 130 million dollars toward the costs of these.

But the problem is that that surcharge is so small it wouldn't really affect behavior. It would amount to about a dozen dollars a year or a dollar a month for those in the high risk areas, and that's not going to create incentives to do a different kind of development in the future.

WERTHEIMER: What would do that?

Dr. DUANE: Well, the key decisions are made by local government, but the costs are born by state or federal tax payers who don't really have a voice in that local decision. The state should be able to send out bills for local government, and that would quickly change behavior by the key decision makers, who are local planning officials and city councils and boards of supervisors.

WERTHEIMER: If you could wave a wand and say, all right, for people who want to live on forest lands, here's what it's got to look like, and if you're not willing to do that, then you're not going to get to build. What would you like to see?

Dr. DUANE: Well, it's a challenge because people move places for not just one reason. They move there because they like the view or the aesthetics or the sense of being in the landscape. And so you don't want to build perfectly fire immune places that are all concrete and don't have any trees.

But I think we can meet those needs if we have patterns of development that are more clustered. We really have to think about planning and design at the local level, not just in terms of protecting each house, but really about the combination of houses on the landscapem so that they can be protected. and the cost would not be nearly as astronomical. It wouldn't be borne by the rest of us as taxpayers.

WERTHEIMER: Timothy Duane teaches environmental policy and land use at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor, thanks so much.

Dr. DUANE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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