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Study Finds 1.4 Million California Homes In High Fire Risk Areas

Firefighters watch the Apple Fire in Banning, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020.
Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP
Firefighters watch the Apple Fire in Banning, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020.

A new study finds public policy around wildfires in California needs to change in order to keep people and property safe.

The state recently endured the most destructive wildfire season’s in history. The fires were frequent and damaging.

Study Finds 1.4 Million California Homes In High Fire Risk Areas
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson

There were 9,639 wildfires in 2020 and they burned nearly 4.4 million acres. California’s August Complex Fire burned more than 1 million acres across seven counties and is considered the state’s first "gigafire."

Thousands of people lost homes and some lost their lives as wildfires blackened the landscape.

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A new study by the nonpartisan group Next 10 finds there are 4.5 million homes in the wildland-urban interface — 1.4 million of those homes are in high fire risk areas.

That creates a stunning potential for property damage, an estimated $610 billion worth of property is at risk.

“We’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of fires,” said Next 10 founder Noel Perry.

And the risk is climbing with the temperature.

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“California has been drying out,” Perry said. “We’re currently in a drought. And unfortunately for the next number of years we are going to continue being in this situation.”

The report suggests public agencies do a better job of managing that risk.

Perry said some people move into more rural areas because housing is cheaper, but when wildfires wipe out that housing, the state’s housing shortage gets worse.

The report suggests cities adopt climate-friendly policies like infill development in urban areas, fewer homes in the zone between cities and the country, and a concerted public planning effort to build communities that are more fire safe.

Study co-author Karen Chapple says public policy planning is the key to making changes.

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She says that applies to both home building and rebuilding in rural areas.

“We take the low-hanging fruit and we just kind of, let’s rebuild,” Chapple said. “There’s no thought, there’s no preparation.”

Chapple studied three California communities struck by wildfire and looked at their rebuilding process. That included Santa Rosa, Ventura and Paradise — the site of the Camp Fire.

All offered lessons about rebuilding.

“We already know that $1 in mitigation costs can save $3 in recovery costs,” Chapple said. “But we think about mitigation in terms of home hardening. In terms of fuel breaks.”