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San Diego's Climate Crisis: The Risks And Costs Of Living In The Backcountry

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Speaker 1: 00:00 And our climate change special continues with a trip to San Diego counties. Back country. Higher temperatures mean less snow pack mean California's forests are dryer for longer. Scientists agree, this chain reaction begins with climate change and ends with an increased wildfire danger. KPBS reported Clare Traeger sir visited a Ramona couple who lost their home to fire in the past, but they're committed to staying.

Speaker 2: 00:28 That wind hit us, uh, at about 120 mile per hour wind with fire.

Speaker 3: 00:35 Pete Beauregard squints in the morning sun as he thinks back to October 22nd, 2007

Speaker 2: 00:42 and it came head on and it was like a blowtorch. It just cut, uh, everything to the ground. It was a two story house.

Speaker 3: 00:52 His home in Ramona burnt down in the witch creek fire, which spurred half a million evacuations and destroyed more than 1000 homes.

Speaker 2: 01:01 The fire was so hot that, you know, after we went in and, uh, we, you know, we saw our granite counters on the ground. We could, like, I tried to pick it up and it just crumbled in my hand

Speaker 3: 01:13 despite their devastating loss. Beauregard and his wife, Amy McQuillan loved the back country too much to leave it. They built a new home right next to the spot where their old one burned down.

Speaker 2: 01:25 All right, well I love this place. It's like Amy says, it's spiritual. I mean, I put a lot of my life into it. You know, a lot of tragedy, a lot of great times, you know, here.

Speaker 3: 01:36 But they have paid a high price for staying in a home that's so special to them. In 2007, their insurance was around $1,500 a year. Last year it was $55,000 a year. A warming world has made life become much more expensive for a lot of people in rural areas susceptible to fires. That includes insurance and other costs. Says David Victor, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Speaker 4: 02:06 The protective measures we take to protect structures, houses in the middle of the forest, um, communities that have been burned, uh, protect them against, uh, against future fires that might involve simple things like much bigger firebreaks. It might involve much more active identification of fires early on. And then next thing you know, you're in effect managing the entire, at least woody ecosystem because of your concerns about fire.

Speaker 3: 02:31 He says in the future, the back country might end up like the coast affordable to only a few.

Speaker 4: 02:37 I think some people who live in that environment are willing to spend huge resources to protect themselves with bigger fire breaks, with different kinds of materials with private, uh, fire services, which are now emerging, including connected to the insurance industry. And so if you're willing to pay for it, I think people could actually last a long time out in that environment. We always still have to be on guard. Thomas

Speaker 3: 03:00 shoots is a spokesman for cal fire. He says fire season used to be just that a season. Now it's basically year-round.

Speaker 5: 03:09 We saw that the Thomas fire, we saw the lilac fire. These fires are, are happening. Um, uh, traditionally or you know, around the holidays

Speaker 3: 03:17 in the last year and a half, California has seen six of its 10 worst fires ever. And last year's fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. But the San Diego region hasn't seen a big fire since 2007 and shoots worries that could lead to complacency.

Speaker 5: 03:36 I hope it doesn't take a catastrophic fire to really drive it home,

Speaker 3: 03:40 but despite the risk shoots wouldn't say people like Pete and Amy should leave the back country

Speaker 5: 03:46 if they're willing to to leave. Uh, when the time comes, then you know they have the right to do what they want. Come this way. Walk this way

Speaker 3: 03:57 back at home in Ramona, Pete and Amy cleared brush from around the house and made their home completely air tight. This helps keep it cool and Beauregard says protected, but they're airtight home creates additional worries. It's hard to hear or smell what's going on outside

Speaker 6: 04:17 during the dry season. Have to kind of get up during the night and go outside and check and see if there's anything. It's always, always kind of in the back of your mind. And joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger. Sir Claire, welcome. Thank you. This question about whether to stay or go from the back country is becoming a more and more urgent one from a lot of people because of both the wildfire risks and the home owner's insurance costs that you were talking about. Right. The people you profiled say they love where they live, but did they tell you anything about the questions they faced about whether to stay or go? Yeah, it sounded like there was maybe a little bit of a disagreement between the husband and wife over whether there was a question to stay or not. Um, the husband Pete Beauregard says he really doesn't struggle.

Speaker 6: 05:06 He's committed to staying. They've invested a lot in their home. They've built it exactly the way they like it. So I imagine that it would be really difficult to think about leaving, but it sounded like his wife, Amy McQuillan was a little more torn. Um, her daughter lives in Portland, Oregon, so she says she sometimes thinks about maybe moving there, but then she did say that it feels like no matter where you go, there are climate change impacts. Like last summer they were visiting her daughter and the air was filled with smoke because of the fires in Oregon last summer. So, so yeah, it's hard to escape anywhere. That insurance increase you mentioned is astronomical from $1,500 a year to 55,000. How can they afford that? Well, I'm not sure that they can because now there are these programs, um, the fair access to insurance requirements or fair plan that they said that they use in it sounds like it's, um, almost like Obamacare maybe for home insurance where, um, it's a program that allows people who have riskier, uh, situations, home insurance situations, um, and they have trouble getting a home insurance. Uh, because of that they can buy into this pool like a shared market plan. Um, it doesn't get state funding, but they can all buy into it and it gets basic that provides basic insurance. And so they use that.

Speaker 1: 06:33 Is there a chance that they may not be able to get insurance at any price

Speaker 6: 06:37 future? I'm not sure. Because the other issue that they talked about is, um, it's not, not a problem for them, but for their neighbors who have a mortgage, I think that requires you to have home insurance. And so they told me that some of their neighbors are finding their mortgage lenders are just enrolling them in these, uh, skyhigh insurance programs saying, Oh, you can't find your own insurance but you have to have insurance, so we're putting you in this. So I think if you have a mortgage that's an issue that will be a big problem for people.

Speaker 1: 07:08 Well, what does the new Beauregard McQuillan home? What does it look like?

Speaker 6: 07:12 It's, I mean, it's really beautiful. Um, I kept saying it felt like a museum inside because they have really emphasized a sealing it so that it's air tight. Um, so even though we are there in Ramona in the middle of the day, it was really hot outside, but it was nice and cool inside. And then it was so quiet and clean. They said that keeps a lot of the dust out because it's so air tight and sealed. And then they've built all of these environmental kind of innovations into it. They had these little sensors in the walls that would tell their central computer system, someone is walking into this room and so it might cool that room a little bit, a little bit, and then you know, not work on cooling the rooms that no one was in. And then they had solar panels, they had their own a wind turbine and high energy efficiency appliances, all of that. What about hardening it against wildfire? Right. So they have the, their doors and windows were extremely thick and then they have really insulated walls, which is both to control the temperature but also, um, they feel like we'll, we'll protect them, protect the home if there's another fire.

Speaker 1: 08:22 You know, it's not only the people who live in the back country face of bigger threat from wildfire, but many fire experts, people that we've had on this show have said that more people living in these back country areas pose a risk to the entire community because most wa wildfires are caused by human activity. And yet the Califyer is spokesman use you spoke with says he's okay with people living anywhere they want to. Well yeah, I mean I feel like he said he didn't want to tell anyone not to be in the, in the place

Speaker 6: 08:52 that they love. It seems like it would be a very controversial position to start saying we are going to require everyone to leave their homes, leave this area. I think prohibiting future development and construction is maybe like would be seen as more of a reasonable stance to take, especially if you're building a big development where there isn't a lot of easy in and out. So if you need to evacuate people that could be a problem. Um, so cal fire, it seems like they're really just focused on, for people who are living out there, clearing all the brush around their house, you know, making the house defensible and doing it in a safe way. The cal fire spokesman said, sometimes fires are actually started by people who are clearing brush because they might do it in the middle of the day and have a spark in and start a fire. So they want to make sure people are doing it safely.

Speaker 1: 09:42 Now this story is part of our week long series here on KPBS on climate change and [inaudible] you spoke with some local teenagers about their feelings about climate change. What did you hear? Yeah. Um,

Speaker 6: 09:54 I mean I feel like no one is more impacted by climate change than, than the younger generation. So, um, I went out and interviewed some, some local middle schoolers and high schoolers and a 17 year old Carlsbad resident Aribel Meyer. She attends the Grauer school in Encinitas where they have this campus wide pledge to reduce their environmental impact in their personal lives. She addressed something you often hear, which is, you know, what one person does won't really make a difference.

Speaker 7: 10:22 The mentality that I think a lot of people have is maybe some people, like if I do something like say, using less plastic in the long run, it's not gonna make a big difference. It's just me. I'm just a single person out of millions. But if everyone had that mentality, then nothing would change.

Speaker 6: 10:41 I mean, I just felt like even though these kids are feeling the greatest impacts, they're also, they still have hope and are actively working to make a difference. So that was actually, it was great to hear that.

Speaker 1: 10:52 Okay. I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter, Claire Chaga or Claire. Thank you. Thank you. Tomorrow reporter Eric Anderson visits and oyster hatchery in Carlsbad that's battling the impacts of a warming ocean. You can find all our stories at change.

Speaker 8: 11:12 Okay.

Higher temperatures caused by climate change mean California’s all-important snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is smaller and melts faster than it did in the past. As a result, forests are dryer for longer and more prone to wildfire.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.