SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
This year has been another really devastating one for wildfires. The West has continued to be hit by all of these droughts. Six million acres of land have burned, which means it's a busy time for Kirk Siegler, one of NPR's correspondents. He's been covering Western wildfires for more than a decade.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Yes, Sally, and this year, the traditional fire season, if you can even call it that anymore, has yet to even peak in much of California.
HERSHIPS: That sounds awful. And once again, Northern California is at the center of a wildfire crisis, just like it was almost three years ago when the Camp Fire burned down Paradise. I remember it was this devastating fire, and 85 people died.
SIEGLER: Today, Paradise actually sits right in between two of this country's largest wildfires still burning. But the town's parks director sees opportunity.
DAN EFSEAFF: There have been so many instances of these fires, people know that we have to do something different.
HERSHIPS: And Paradise, Calif., is doing something different this season. They're looking to buy people out of some of the highest fire risk parts of town. Then they have kind of an interesting plan for that land.
I'm Sally Herships in for Stacey Vanek Smith
SIEGLER: And I'm Kirk Siegler. And this is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY.
So far this year, the U.S. government is on track to spend $2 billion trying to contain these mega fires. So today on the show, we're going to look at what Paradise learned and what we could learn from Paradise.
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SIEGLER: What's going on in Paradise is grabbing the attention of a lot of people who have been warning for years that this country's wildfire policy is grossly outdated in the era of climate change.
HERSHIPS: And the stakes are especially high right now because millions of Westerners are now living in the path of potential fires. And in states like California especially, a lot of people are moving out into higher fire risk areas because they have to. It's cheaper.
SIEGLER: Right. When I went back up to the Sierra Nevada just recently to cover more fires, you could see the plume of the Dixie Fire in Northern California from Paradise. It was quite ominous. For many people, it triggered trauma, even.
But I'd say going back there, it's been interesting to track this sort of evolution of thinking in and around Paradise in the years since that fire, the Camp Fire. There's this sense that the old way of living in the West is not sustainable. I mean, just look on the horizon and see the Dixie Fire. And there's a serious push up there to build the town back in a much smarter way.
HERSHIPS: And you met one man in particular who's really trying to think differently and get the community to think differently, even in the middle of this full-blown crisis.
SIEGLER: That's right. His name is Dan Efseaff, and he's kind of an understated player up there, not someone you might expect like an elected official or a fire manager pushing for big changes. I mean, he's the director of Paradise's Parks Department. He's also an ecologist. And I took a ride with him one morning to learn more about what he's up to.
EFSEAFF: You can see the smoke has gotten bad as we're driving up the canyon here.
SIEGLER: Smoke from the Dixie Fire - you know, he took me down a highway lined on both sides by stumps from logged, charred pine trees.
EFSEAFF: This is not something a fire engine would even entertain going down.
SIEGLER: We then plunged down a narrow, steep and winding dirt road that led us toward the rim of a canyon.
Right off the bat, it's hard to imagine when people buy a piece of property that you think, like, yeah, you can buy that. It's approved. But your firefighters are only going to walk in (laughter) there. So they're not coming in here with their big rig at all.
HERSHIPS: OK. I can picture this place having some, like, amazing views, but I don't feel like it would be that safe during an actual fire.
SIEGLER: No. This road that we were on was one way in, one way out, too narrow for a firetruck to come in and save any homes, which is basically what happened there almost three years ago.
EFSEAFF: We have 21 acres down here, and we'll step out.
SIEGLER: This neighborhood was leveled by the Camp Fire. It's unrecognizable.
Are we standing on somebody's old home, I think?
EFSEAFF: We are. We are.
SIEGLER: Now, the 21 acres Dan was talking about is a piece of property the town just acquired. It's part of an ambitious project he came up with to buy up land from Camp Fire survivors who either couldn't or didn't want to rebuild in places like this. Now, his idea is to connect these properties to existing parkland that the town owns and manages already.
HERSHIPS: And Dan says the benefits of this plan are twofold - first, more park space, but more importantly, a green buffer zone, a fuel break, a place the town can manage - you know, things like clearing brush or thinning trees. And the idea is that those things would slow a fire down.
SIEGLER: Exactly - and maybe even do some prescribed burning there to bring lower intensity, good fires back into the landscape. Where Dan took me was an example of a classic problem we have here in the West. You've got an overgrown forest due to past management decisions and also a lot of mostly unrestricted development, which essentially creates these flammable towns.
EFSEAFF: And you can see this area got decimated, just cooked, by a fire. So it was a high intense area. It's going to be a high intense area in a future fire, too.
SIEGLER: So by clearing all this out and managing the land closely, Dan thinks that firefighters might be able to make a stand here next time, and the town could hopefully survive.
EFSEAFF: Every single one of these properties we're looking at from the standpoint of, what can we do to limit the spread of fire? Is this a staging area? - and all of that. And I think it's going to make the community safer.
HERSHIPS: Now, an important distinction here that we want to make is that the town is not using eminent domain, and it has no plans to.
SIEGLER: Right. This is all voluntary. But Paradise has already acquired about 300 acres of private parcels with some 500 more acres in the pipeline. So it's significant. Now, they're paying for it with grants from nonprofits and some donations, but they're going to need a lot more money - like, $20 million more - to really make a difference and make the new Paradise more resilient.
HERSHIPS: That sounds like a lot of money, but I guess not when you consider that the Camp Fire itself did about $16 billion in damages. It was the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018.
SIEGLER: And the thing is, there's actually a template for this to look toward. The federal government has been buying out people who live in higher-risk flood zones for almost three decades now.
HERSHIPS: Whether that could be replicated to wildfire zones on a really large scale is still up for debate.
SIEGLER: Exactly. Climate experts we talked to said that buying people out and creating these green buffer zones, if you will, is going to be easier to do in places like Paradise that have already burned. Well, things get a little trickier, as you can imagine, when you start to approach people in places that haven't. And this was attempted on a grander scale in Australia a few years back with not a lot of success.
HERSHIPS: I mean, I could totally understand why it would be hard to convince someone to move away from their dream home in the mountains or maybe someone who was living out of the woods because it's the only place they can afford.
SIEGLER: Yeah. You know, experts say public money may be better spent on hardening existing homes. That means, you know, no more wood shake roofs or wood decks, use more fire-resistant building materials, clear out all the brush and shrubs around properties.
But the thing is, either these sorts of actions that have been around for a while aren't consistent enough across the region, or it's just not enough entirely that it feels like everything is now on the table in this climate crisis, including governments buying people out.
HERSHIPS: And the federal government is paying more attention as the West is facing increasingly more destructive fires. In fact, federal law was changed recently, and FEMA now has the authority to spend more money on preventing disasters.
SIEGLER: Right. And Dan is happy about this. And he's eager to get serious federal funding behind what he's trying to do up in Paradise. And Paradise and, frankly, all the West doesn't really have that much time to get this right.
EFSEAFF: So we're going to learn how to live with it in a better way and not just kind of build and hope for the best, which has been kind of the approach, I think, in the past.
SIEGLER: Five thousand people have moved back. And the pace of rebuilding, even after such a huge disaster like that, has surprised even the leaders of the town, which means the town's new buffer zone approach could soon be tested.
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HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from James Willetts. It was fact-checked by Michael He. The show is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.
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