In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Matthew Wibbenmeyer, an RFF fellow and an expert on wildfire management. With fires currently raging across much of Northern California, Wibbenmeyer discusses how the state is working to control damages and make plans for the future, as climate change threatens to intensify wildfire risks. While this year’s blazes have so far caused much less damage than the history-making Camp Fire in 2018, Wibbenmeyer cautions that this year’s wildfire season is not over yet and that the coronavirus pandemic complicates efforts to manage the fire and help vulnerable Californians evacuate.
Listen to the Podcast
- COVID-19 makes wildfire evacuations more challenging: “Shelters are trying to reduce capacity in order to allow for greater social distancing, and they're changing how meals are provided. The Red Cross is trying to provide hotel rooms for evacuees in place of beds at shelters, though I think it's unclear how many evacuees have actually been able to get rooms this way … Many evacuees are sheltering with extended family or friends, which, in normal circumstances, would be a perfectly fine thing to do, but given the COVID-19 situation, they may want to isolate their own risk from the risk of family and friends.” (9:23)
- Wildfires on the West Coast can affect the whole country’s air quality: “Evidence has been mounting that the air quality impacts from wildfires are among the largest impacts from these events, in large part because the air quality impacts are so widespread. In Northern California and the Bay Area, they've had—over the course of the last two weeks—among the worst air quality in the world, but smoke has been spreading across the United States ... I'm in DC, and this week, we've had some slightly diminished air quality that seems to be due to smoke that spread all the way across the United States from California.” (13:47)
- Preparing for the inevitability of future fires: “We're not going to remove fire from the landscape. Climate change is going to continue to happen, and this situation is going to continue to be extreme in the coming years. So, we need to take action on a number of fronts. One way that we can reduce risk is to try to more proactively use fire on the landscape to remove fuels in safe ways, so that when unplanned fires occur, they're not as intense and not as hazardous … Another area where I think we really need to make progress is trying to limit where development occurs and how development occurs in high fire-risk areas.” (22:49)
Top of the Stack
- “The Ongoing Trauma of California’s Wildfires, in ‘Last Days at Paradise High’” by Rachel Riederer
- “How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands” by Larissa MacFarquhar
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with RFF Fellow Matt Wibbenmeyer. Matt will give us an update on the recent widespread wildfires in California. We'll cover lots of ground today, including the severity of the fires, their impacts on people and places, and their causes, including the role of climate change. We'll also talk about how public policies can help reduce the risks of these fires, including the roles of prescribed burning and housing policy. Stay with us.
Alright, Matt Wibbenmeyer from Resources for the Future, thank you so much for joining us again on Resources Radio. I want to start the episode by thanking you because you were our first-ever guest on the podcast about a year and a half ago, talking about wildfires in California. And now, here we are again, talking about wildfires in California. So thanks for joining us again.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Great to be here, Daniel. Yeah, that was in November of 2018, shortly after the Camp Fire that year. And yet again, fires are in the news.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Well, we need to find a way to have you on the podcast to talk about things that are not about pressing and awful news events. So, we'll definitely make sure to do that in the future, but today, we are going to talk about wildfires, and we're going to talk about California. So, I won't ask you our normal first question about how you got interested in wildfires, because people can go back to our first episode of the podcast and learn about that, but I will ask you if you have any particular spots in California that you really like to visit, that you might encourage people to check out, either if they're in California or when they get to visit California in the future.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. So, I went to graduate school in Santa Barbara, at UC Santa Barbara, and I definitely have a very warm spot in my heart for Santa Barbara, but one of the things that I really love about California, just in general, is how diverse the landscape across the state is. And so the place I'll mention is Pine Mountain, or I've never heard it referred to this way, but the Wikipedia article on Pine Mountain refers to it as Mount Pinos. So, Pine Mountain is in the eastern part of Ventura County. It's about an hour from the coast or an hour and a half from Santa Barbara. And it's a very broad, massive mountain with a very flat top. And it sits up at almost 9,000 feet, just an hour from the coast there. So, you can travel from Santa Barbara or Ventura where there are a lot of palm trees, and then be up at 9,000 feet very quickly, where there are a lot of pine trees and, in the winter, snow.
So it's a very nice way to get out to a completely different landscape and something that I think is kind of rare to see the landscape change in such a short distance.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. I've never been there. I lived in California for a few years myself and one of my favorite spots was always driving north from Santa Barbara on Highway 1, stopping in San Simeon to see the elephant seals.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: So yeah, if any listeners have not ever heard or seen elephant seals, I would encourage you to look it up on some kind of video service because they're pretty amazing creatures.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: So, all right. We'll stop going down memory lane now and talk a little bit about what's happening in California. So, as our listeners will know, it's been a really tough few weeks for so many people in the state, from persistently high COVID cases, to a widespread heat wave that led to rolling power outages, and now this spate of enormous wildfires. So, we're going to focus on wildfires today, and I'll just ask you to give us an update. As of today, we're recording on Thursday, August 27th. The episode will come out in about five days from now, but where are we today in terms of where some of the largest wildfires have been? And can you give us a sense of how damaging they've been?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. So it's definitely been really hard weeks for California, especially for all of these fires to come amid the COVID-19 crisis and especially for this to happen just yet again. It seems like every year fire conditions have been getting worse, especially in the last few years. So, this all kind of started in terms of the series of fires on August 16th, when there were 11,000 lightning strikes over the course of a 36-hour period in the Bay Area and around Northern California. The context for this dry lightning storm was a heat wave across the state of California, which caused rolling blackouts across the state due to increased demand for air conditioning, and Death Valley reached 130 degrees, which was the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth. So this was a very intense heat wave and it came after a fairly dry winter and a warm spring. So these were very ripe conditions for wildfires and a very large ignition event.
And so, we've had about 700 new fire ignitions across the state since mid-August. 1.4 million acres have burned so far. For context, at this point last year, just over 50,000 acres had burned. This last year was, to be fair, a fairly light fire year, but this is a really massive amount of area that's burned in just a short period of time.
Not only are there a lot of fires, several of them are very, very large. In fact, the second and third largest fires in California state history are now burning simultaneously on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay. So the LNU lightning complex is west of Vacaville and Fairfield and east of Santa Rosa, so this is north of the Bay Area, and it's over 350,000 acres. The SCU lightning complex, which is west of San Jose, is also over 350,000 acres. Just a few years ago, the Thomas fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties made California state history when it became the biggest fire in state history at about 300,000 acres. And now, just a few years later, it's the fourth largest fire in state history. So these are just a really historic series of events.
The good news, if you can call it that, is at least in consideration of the scale of the number of fires in the area that have burned, the damage has been relatively low so far. So, seven people have died and 2,000 structures have been destroyed. So certainly, those are really terrible impacts, but they're fortunately not as large as the scale of this amount of fire activity might indicate, and certainly not on the scale of the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 18,000 structures.
So, in terms of the impacts, actually, air quality impacts may be greatest. And I know we're going to talk about that later in the podcast, but just due to how widespread those air quality impacts are, that may be the area that's causing the greatest impact so far.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Thank you for all that context. That's really useful.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. And I should mention too that these events are far from over, and fire season is far from over. Though these impacts are relatively light so far, there's a long way to go on these fires.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. And just one additional piece of context, you mentioned that the fire has had, to date, burned about 1.2 million acres. I was just looking up and apparently, the state of Rhode Island is about 775,000 acres. So, substantially more than at least one US state.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. That's great. Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: You mentioned COVID-19 earlier. Can you give us a sense of how COVID might be complicating the response to the fires, both in terms of the civilian population and evacuations, as well as how it might be affecting fire-fighting itself?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. So, right, it definitely complicates the situation in a number of ways. So, for people forced to evacuate from these fires, and there's definitely been a lot of them, tens of thousands of people at least, they're not only having to worry about how to stay safe from these fires, but how to stay safe in a way that also keeps them safe from COVID-19, so that's definitely a complication. After the Camp Fire, there was a norovirus outbreak in an evacuation shelter. So, concerns over disease spread in these shelters are definitely real. So, shelters are trying to reduce capacity in order to allow for greater social distancing, and they're changing how meals are provided. Red Cross is trying to provide hotel rooms for evacuees in place of beds at shelters, though I think it's unclear how many evacuees have actually been able to get rooms this way. I wasn't able to find anything on that.
And then certainly, in addition to shelters, many evacuees are, no doubt, sheltering with extended family or friends, which, in normal circumstances, would be, of course, a perfectly fine thing to do, but given the COVID-19 situation, they may be wanting to isolate their own risk from the risk of family and friends, and so that complicates the situation.
But COVID-19 is also affecting firefighting, as you said. So, normally, firefighters stay in large tent camps, so they're fairly close quarters, they work in close quarters, they attend briefings where they all sort of sit in a large hall. All of that is changing. And they've been thinking about this since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, how to deal with this over the course of this year's fire season. So, they're trying to work in isolated pods and sleep and isolated pods. They're doing remote briefings, all trying to prevent the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in groups of firefighters, which would of course be really not only disastrous for the firefighter's health, especially as they're exposed to all of this smoke, but could really reduce firefighter availability through the course of these events. And that's another concern as well for firefighting, especially in California. California relies on several crews of inmate firefighters.
I do want to mention that there are some dubious moral concerns here with this use of inmate firefighters, especially given that after they're released from prison, they have trouble finding work with CAL FIRE doing this work that they were available to do as inmates. So that's definitely a concern, but that aside, throughout this crisis, fewer inmate firefighters are available because California's inmate population is down about 9 percent from a year ago because a large number of inmates were released due to COVID concerns in prisons.
So, according to one estimate, about 10 times as many firefighters would be needed to battle this large number of fires that are going on than are available. And so these concerns over firefighter availability are very real, and COVID doesn't make that easier.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you mentioned air quality a couple of times, so let's talk about that. Anyone who's been looking closely at air quality data in California and broadly across the West has seen really concerning levels of pollution. Particulate matter is the one that I've been looking at most closely, but can you give us a sense of how the smoke has been affecting different communities, both in California and more broadly across the country?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. So as I said, I think that evidence has been mounting that the air quality impacts from wildfires are among the largest impacts from these events, in large part because the air quality impacts are so widespread. So in Northern California and the Bay Area, they've had—over the course of the last two weeks—among the worst air quality in the world, but smoke has been spreading across the US. It's not just confined to Northern California. And in fact, I'm in DC, and this week, we've had some slightly diminished air quality that seems to be due to smoke that spread all the way across the United States from California. So this smoke really impacts a large number of people, and there's evidence that because of this, the health impacts can be very large.
So, the greatest effects and the people that should be really careful, especially in areas where the air quality impacts are severe, are the young and old and people with preexisting heart or respiratory conditions. And of course, given COVID-19, anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should be very careful about the smoke. And there's also concerns that some of the smoke-induced coughing may lead to increased spread of COVID-19.
So, among these populations, we have evidence that—especially among the elderly—there can be increased mortality due to smoke. One paper finds that about 500 elderly people per year die because of wildfire smoke across the United States. There's also evidence that smoke decreases birth weights and leads to greater infant mortality. And so these impacts can be very large.
There's also some evidence that wildfire smoke leads to negative consequences for a number of economic outcomes. So, it can disrupt labor force participation, and evidence indicates that these impacts may be on a similar scale to standard valuations of mortality losses due to smoke. So, if we use value of statistical life estimates to value those mortality losses, the labor force impacts are sort of on a similar scale, so pretty large impacts there. And then, of course, changes to quality of life, what people can do outside. So, I currently have a paper looking at changes in recreation behavior due to wildfire smoke and people change their patterns of behavior there, certainly.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah. It's really concerning and fascinating how widespread it is. So I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we've been having really beautiful sunsets the last week or so, and I think a lot of that is because of the smoke that's in the air and that's been wafting through the atmosphere. And it's a beautiful sunset, but you sort of have to understand the risks that go with that sunset.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah, absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: So one other piece of news that I've seen quite frequently related to these wildfires is concerns about forests in California that are filled with these 1,000-year-old redwood trees. Can you give us a sense of how damaging the fires have been to some of these kind of iconic places, maybe parks, or other places where there's old growth forests?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. So over the weekend especially, there were reports that one of the fires had burned through Big Basin State Park in California, which is California's oldest state park and the home of many very large and very old redwood trees. The good news is that over the past few days, it's been reported that most of those, of the very oldest trees and the biggest trees, seem to have survived the fire. So, redwoods are fire-adapted trees, as are most of the species native to California. They're very resilient, which is how they have made it to be as old as those big trees are. So, it looks like those biggest trees were able to survive at least these fires.
I do want to point out that though it seems that these trees survived this time, there's definitely a risk here. Just because these trees are fire-adapted doesn't mean they'd survive every fire. Many of the fires in the past that these trees may have survived were likely lower severity fires. And these fires that we're seeing in the last few years have been much higher severity than likely the trees were exposed to in the past. So there is some risk and fortunately, at least this time, these trees seem to have survived.
Daniel Raimi: Fascinating. One of the topics that we talked about a lot in our podcast almost a few years ago now was about the role of climate change in exacerbating wildfire risk in California and across the western United States. Are the types of fires that we're seeing now—you've described them as being more severe than what we might've seen in the past—are these roughly in line with what we might have expected or what scientists might have expected from the level of climate change that we've already seen, which is on the order of one degree Celsius above pre-industrial averages? What's the level of certainty we have about that? How much of this is related to climate change?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: So, wildfire frequency and severity in the western United States has been increasing over the last half century. And there's pretty solid evidence that that's at least in part driven by climate change. So, the primary channel that that's occurring through is just a longer fire season. So, springs are arriving earlier, which means that there's a longer period when fuels are dry. In California, there's also a later end to the fire season, and what that means there is that fire season overlaps with the offshore wind seasons. And so you get fires at the same time as these Santa Ana winds, for example, and that can drive really fast moving and damaging wildfire events. So, these fires are definitely... they definitely have sort of fit the pattern of increasing wildfire activity. That said, the last few years have been definitely really extreme, and what we're seeing right now is certainly unprecedented.
The scary thing, I think, is that this is not very likely to change anytime soon. Someone on Twitter—and I can't remember who this was, which I apologize for—I think framed this very well, saying that we should be thinking about this each year now not as the hottest year of the last 100 years but the coolest year of the next 100 years. And unfortunately, projections indicate that as climate continues to warm, this wildfire activity will continue to increase at least as long as there are fuels available to burn. So this situation unfortunately is not likely to change in California anytime soon.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that is a really depressing quote, and I think I saw it as well, but it's a very true and concerning quote.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah, just a good way of thinking about it, I thought.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean, given that climate change is not about to reverse itself at least anytime soon, certainly for not the next few decades, even if we are ambitious about climate policies, the concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere are almost certain to keep growing over the next several decades, what are some of the steps that you think fire prone regions in California or elsewhere are going to need to make in the next few years to protect their residents and protect those precious places?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Yeah. So, I think the first thing is to acknowledge that this is a problem and is likely to continue to be a problem. So, eliminating fire is not going to be an option. We're not going to remove fire from the landscape. Climate change is going to continue to happen, and this situation is going to continue to be extreme in the coming years. And so we need to take action on a number of fronts.
So, one way that we can reduce risk is to try to more proactively use fire on the landscape to remove fuels in safe ways so that when unplanned fires occur, they're not as intense and not as hazardous. So, evidence indicates that Native people burned between five to 13 million acres per year in California, and you can compare that to the 1.4 million acres that has burned far in this year, which we would consider to be a very extreme fire year. So, they were doing a lot more than we're currently doing to remove fuels every year across the landscape. Of course, there are some challenges that exist now that didn't exist then, but I think it's pretty clear that we need to be doing more in this area.
Another area where I think we really need to make progress is trying to limit where development occurs and how development occurs in high fire risk areas. The key thing here is the places that we're building now, we're going to have to live with for decades into the future. And so if we build in these risky areas or build in ways that don't take fire risk into account, we're going to have to be living with that increased risk for a very long time. So it's really important to consider that in choosing how and where we build. In California, this is especially tricky because the state is going through a housing crisis and of course, people need to have places to live. So I think the challenge there is to figure out how the state can build more housing and more central locations so that they don't have to live in more far-flung areas with very high fire risk.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, those are such important points, and again, also rich. As per usual, with our podcasts, it's like we could take any one of these questions and spend hours on them, but you've highlighted some really important points there. How much of the steps that you've just outlined, whether it's related to the use of fire or housing development, how much of this is already happening in places like California? In the policy circles that you're aware of, are these strategies starting to be implemented, or is it still at the stage of kind of people talking about them and not doing a whole lot?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: So, I definitely think there's increased recognition that more action needs to take place on both of these fronts, but I think that there's a lot more that still needs to be done. So in the area of fuel reduction, California and some western states have been working to increase use of prescribed fire, which is when forest or fire managers intentionally set fires to remove fuels, and they do this when conditions are relatively mild and the fire can be easily controlled. And they're also working to enable greater use of managed wildfire, which is when an unplanned ignition is—rather than aggressively suppressed—when they allow that to burn in order to improve fuel or ecological conditions. And the way they're doing that is by removing regulatory hurdles for use of these tools, one of those being concerns about smoke, so they're easing conditions when prescribed fire can be approved.
They're also increasing funding available for these tools, like prescribed fire, because it can be quite expensive to plan and implement these projects. I saw today that amid these ongoing fire events, California legislators are considering a utility fee in California that would raise $3 billion per year for fire prevention, including money for fuel reduction projects. So there's definitely activity on this front, but as I said before, especially if we sort of consider what Native people did in California and how much area is currently being burned, we're a long way behind there.
In terms of development, there's, again, an increasing acknowledgement that we need to consider risk in development decisions. And so, actually, today, we're taping on Thursday, August 27th, and there were those reports that FEMA announced a $500 million plan that would help people move out of areas with flood risk. And so there's more activity on this front, thinking about how risks can be considered in development decisions. But I think it's still hard to find examples of situations where fire risk has actually prevented an area from being developed or plans have changed in a concrete way due to fire risk.
One success story I would point to in that area is California implemented building codes in high fire risk areas in 2008, and homes that were built after 2008 in Paradise, California were destroyed at a much lower rate in the Camp Fire. So there's I think good evidence that this kind of action can be successful in reducing risk to homes. But again, the housing stock is so durable, so long-lasting. Effects of these reforms are really slow to take root and it's just another reason why we really need to begin to integrate consideration of this risk into decisionmaking today—or yesterday would be even better.
Daniel Raimi: Right. That's so interesting. All those points are really fascinating. Well, Matt, I could ask you a million more questions about wildfire and all the policies surrounding it that we've just been talking about, but we're at time. So, I'm going to close us out with our Top of the Stack question, so asking you what you've read or heard or watched or enjoyed recently that you'd recommend to our listeners. And I'll start with a short documentary that I recently found on the website of the New Yorker magazine called “Last Days at Paradise High.” It's actually a short film that follows a group of high school seniors in the aftermath of the Camp Fire that we've been talking about today. It just gives you a sense of how they managed during that time period. And it's sad, but it's also a really fascinating insight into how these events affect people in California. But how about you, Matt? What's on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack?
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: That's great. I hadn't seen that piece, so I'll look that up. I'm actually going to recommend something also from the New Yorker. This was an article from the July 6th issue by Larissa MacFarquhar, and it's called “How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands.” This is very tangentially related to natural resources and the environment, but I thought it was really fascinating article. The story is basically about how the culture of the Falkland Islands, which is off the coast of Argentina, was transformed as they went from a very poor, predominantly sheep-raising area without any roads to one of the wealthiest places in the world per capita, and that was in part because Britain began allowing the Falklands to claim fishing rights in the nearby waters. And it just totally, as the people of the Falklands became wealthy due to these fishing rights, it just totally transformed the culture in some good and some arguably bad ways. So I thought it was just a really fascinating article and a window into this really remote part of the world.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. I read that article as well, and I second the recommendation. That's a really fascinating piece. It kind of transports you to a totally different place in the world.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Totally, yeah.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, thank you so much, Matt, for joining us again and telling us about what's happening in California with the wildfires. I've learned a ton and I know our listeners have too, so thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer: Thanks a lot, Daniel. It's great to be here.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants'. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.