Know your risks. Then prepare.
It’s one thing to know risk, and quite another to do something about it.
Did we know there could be another racist attack like the one in Buffalo? Yes, we did. We witnessed white supremacy gaining strength. We saw military-grade weapons proliferate. A trail of bloodshed reminded us of the risk: Charleston, Pittsburgh, El Paso.
Risk is something I think about every day in my coverage of climate change. Now that we know the risks of life on an overheated planet, what do we do to minimize suffering?
And so, when I saw Christopher Flavelle and Nadja Popovich’s wildfires article and maps on Monday, I had more questions. I wanted to know what to do with these new projections.
I reached out to Chris. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Chris, hi. In your maps, big patches of the American West, including much of California, where my family and friends live, turn ocher-red in 30 years, meaning that they are projected to face significantly higher wildfire risk in 2052. Are we just supposed to get out of all those areas?
It’s unlikely that people will abandon homes in even the most fire-prone areas, and it’s probably unnecessary, for now. State and local officials can use this new data to prioritize where they spend scarce dollars to reduce risk. In some places, that could mean thinning out nearby forests and other vegetation that act as fuel. Elsewhere, it could be making sure firefighters have the equipment they need. In other places, it could mean making sure roads are accessible to get people out and fire trucks in.
If I own a home in one of these areas, what can I do and how much will it cost me?
Unlike flood-proofing your home, which often means elevating the structure at a cost of $100,000 or more, reducing your exposure to fires doesn’t need to be prohibitively expensive. If you have a wood roof, think about replacing it with a material less likely to combust. If you have single-pane windows, consider getting double, to make it harder for embers to break through. Create what’s called “defensible space” around your home by removing anything within five feet of the structure that can catch fire. You can find more tips here.
California has a statewide building code for new homes built in fire-hazard areas. It includes things like defensible space, double-pane windows and noncombustible roofs. But what if I’m a renter?
A renter has fewer options. First, be careful about where you rent, and buy renters’ insurance. If you have to leave your home because of a fire, the level of federal assistance depends on whether state officials seek a federal disaster declaration, whether the federal government grants it, and then, on what type of aid the government provides. Renters forced out of their homes may qualify for help from FEMA. Don’t count on it.
Second, assess your risks now. If you live in a fire-prone area and worry your landlord isn’t taking that threat seriously, consider asking your local Fire Department for an assessment. Inform your landlord. Remember, she or he has a financial incentive to reduce those risks. Insurance may not cover the entire cost of rebuilding after a fire.
Wow. That seems designed not to protect the poor, who are more likely to rent. We’ve been talking about what individuals can do to protect themselves. What can people do to reduce risks in their community?
If there’s new development being planned in your area, you can ask your local planning officials to explain what level of wildfire risk is associated with it. You can ask whether local building codes match the risk. If your community is surrounded by forest and only has one road in and out, ask your local officials what you should do if that road is shut down. If you live near lands managed by the state or federal government, you can ask your state or federal representative when officials last removed excess vegetation to reduce wildfire risk.
What if I’m thinking of vacationing in a fire-prone area? Should I just avoid seeing the California redwoods?
If you go to a fire-prone area, avoid visiting in times of heightened danger. Check before you go whether there are nearby fires that might reach the area you’re visiting. Figure out an evacuation plan. Weigh the risks. Go see the redwoods when the risks are low.
Here’s the mind-boggling thing. A recent study found that, between 1990 and 2010, areas with the highest fire risk have had the fastest population growth, including in California and Texas. People are literally moving into danger. Should we rethink living in forested hills and canyons?
One way to reduce risk now is to expose fewer people to risk. So rather than continuing to build houses (and schools and shopping malls) further into the wilderness, from a safety point of view, it’s better to build denser urban communities, where people aren’t near dense, dry forests. In much of the country, living so close to the wilderness may be already too risky.
Before you go: A one-man mission to make compost cool
Domingo Morales, 30, is from the Bronx. His street name was “Reckless” and he experienced more than his share of tough times growing up. But one day, Morales saw a notice for a nonprofit that trains young people for green jobs. He learned to build garden beds and how composted soil strengthens plants and cuts greenhouse gases. After winning a $200,000 award, he created “Compost Power,” to bring his new passion to public housing in four New York City boroughs, with more sites planned. “For many years, compost has been that evil, stinky upper class thing that white people do,” Morales said. “But it’s really a great introduction to sustainability as a whole.” You can read his story here.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
Reach us at email@example.com. We read every message, and reply to many!