When California Is On Fire the Economy Feels the Burn
The origin of the name California can be traced back to a handful of theories, including a Spanish translation, caliente horno, meaning “hot furnace;” an indigenous word meaning “high hill;” and most commonly recognized, from the 16th century novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián), by Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo. In Montalvo’s book, he describes a fictional queen – Calafia, who reigns over the mythical island of California. Although historians credit Montalvo’s imagined island as the inspiration for the state’s name, California is nevertheless a “hot furnace,” home to a scourge of devastating wildfires that have ripped across the landscape at an increasing rate. Six out of ten of California’s wildfires within the past 10 years hold the honor of being the worst fires on record for the state, with 2017 and 2018 representing the largest acreage burned, the greatest economic impact and the highest loss of life.
California’s Most Devastating Fires
- 2018 – The Mendocino Complex Fire, including the Ranch Fire: Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn Counties. Burned 459,123 acres, 280 structures and 1 fatality. This fire holds the record as the largest fire in California’s recorded history.
- 2017 – The Thomas Fire: Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Burned 281,893 acres, 1,063 structures and 2 fatalities. Subsequent mudslides in the aftermath of the fires took an additional 22 lives.
- 2003 – The Cedar Fire: San Diego County. Burned 273,246 acres, 2,820 structures and 15 fatalities.
- 2012 – The Rush Fire: Lassen County. Burned 271,911 acres, also crossing the Nevada border to burn a total of 315,577 acres. No fatalities.
- 2013 – The Rim Fire: Tuolumne County. Burned 257,314 acres, and 112 structures with no fatalities.
- 2007 – The Zaca Fire: Santa Barbara County. Burned 240,207 acres and 1 structure. No fatalities.
- 2018 – The Carr Fire: Trinity and Shasta Counties. Burned 229,651 acres and 1,604 structures. 8 fatalities.
- 1932 – The Matilija Fire: Ventura County. Burned 220,000 acres.
- 2007 – The Witch Fire: San Diego County. Burned 197,990 acres and 1,650 structures. 2 fatalities.
- 2008 – The Klamath Theater Complex Fire: Siskiyou County. Burned 192,038 acres and 0 structures. 2 fatalities.
Two of the deadliest wildfires in California’s history took place in 2017 – the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma Counties, with 36,807 acres burned, 5,643 structures and 22 fatalities, and the Redwood Valley Complex Fire in Mendocino County, which burned 36,523 acres, 544 structures and had 9 fatalities.
The Economic Impact of California’s Wildfires
It is estimated that California’s wildfires in 2017 alone exceeded $70 billion dollars, and profoundly impacted the state and national economy in innumerable ways that range from lost tourism revenue, the impact on real estate, the impact on agriculture, property loss and damage, health issues related to smoke inhalation, lost tax revenue from non-functioning businesses, lack of income tax payment as a result of job loss, and the exorbitant cost of fire prevention and containment. On average, California’s wildfires number roughly 7,777 a year, with an average burned area of 705,174 acres. According the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), this year 6,188 fires across the state burned a total of “1,489,473 acres, causing over 2.844 billion in damages, which included $1.288 billion in fire suppression and containment costs.”
The Main Contributing Factors
What makes the state of California so susceptible to wildfire devastation? Three contributing factors are generally acknowledged, which include:
- High Fuel – High fuel loads as a result of longterm fire suppression, the longstanding impact of drought and insect infestations that leave large swaths of standing dead. In some areas of California, such as in the Sierra Nevada, 90% of the trees are currently dead, creating what scientists believe to be unprecedented wildfire conditions that exceed current fire behavior modeling simulations.
- Climate Change – As atmospheric conditions in California trend more and more toward increased temperatures, dryness and drought, wildfires have plenty of fuel to burn for longer amounts of time, spurred on by high temperatures and a severe lack of moisture.
- Development in and Around the Wildland-Urban Interface – Many Californians live and work near what is known as the wildland-urban interface, a swath of land that connects open space wilderness to developed neighborhoods and industrial areas. Communities that are built adjacent to wildland areas are especially vulnerable to wildfire risk, and home construction within the wildland-urban interface has grown significantly in the past 20 years, contributing to a marked increase in structures burned.
The Future of Fighting and Funding Wildfires in California
According to CalFire, “Firefighting costs have more than tripled from $242 million in 2013 fiscal year to $773 million in the 2018 fiscal year that ended June 30th.” In a piece published by Politifact, Burning Money, “In July alone, the state spent more than $114 million fighting fires… already about one quarter of its emergency fire budget for the fiscal year that ends in June 2019 (and) that doesn’t count the vast sums spent by the federal government fighting fires across the state. Governor Jerry Brown is stressing that California address the impacts of climate change, which add to the perfect storm of conditions contributing to the devastation of wildfires. Says Brown, “We’re in uncharted territory. Since civilization emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t had this kind of heat condition, and it’s going to continue getting worse.”
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