Source: US Department of Defense on Flickr. US Government work


Record wildfires push 2018 disaster costs to $91 billion

Following a year with a record wildfire season and two major hurricanes among its extreme weather disasters, it’s clear Americans are paying dearly for the costs of climate change and its devastating impacts. But without greater action, including federal leadership, to stem the Earth’s rising temperatures and make communities more resilient, the costs will continue to mount.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reports the costs of severe weather and climate disasters totaled $91 billion in 2018. The bulk of these costs are attributed to three extreme events: Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael, and wildfires, mostly in California. The 2018 fire season stands out as California’s costliest and deadliest, with the state’s largest wildfires on record. California residents are still recovering and have lingering concerns about post-fire risks like flooding.

The Camp Fire in Northern California was the deadliest and most destructive, killing 88 people, destroying more than 18,500 structures, and costing an estimated $15 billion. In all, 2018’s wildfire season burned 8.7 million acres, far surpassing the 10-year average burn area of 6.8 million acres per year. The total cost was a staggering $24 billion, primarily from the destruction of homes and infrastructure, along with firefighting costs. The 2018 wildfire season overtook 2017 as the most expensive, and the two years together caused an unprecedented $40 billion worth of damage.

Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Events

Far-Reaching Risks

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Vol. 1 finds that warmer temperatures and drier conditions contribute to the increasing severity and frequency of wildfires. Further, it reports that climate change is responsible for more than half of the increase in forest fuel aridity, and the increasing dryness has doubled the area burned by wildfires since 1970. The NCA also reports an expected 30 percent increase in the annual area burned from lightning-ignited wildfires by 2060.

Wildfires’ rippling impacts hurt communities, the economy, human health, and environment long after the fire is out. Wildfire smoke reduces air quality, increasing eye and respiratory illnesses near the fire and hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Smoke and ash can contaminate drinking water supplies, increase the likelihood of flooding and landslides, and disrupt the transmission and distribution of energy and electricity. Additionally, wildfires release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—contributing to further climate change.

Wildfire Resilience

Forest health, climate conditions, and community planning in fire-prone areas are key factors for wildfire risk and resilience. Urban and suburban sprawl in areas that may have been relatively low-risk in the past are now in an increasingly risky wildland-urban interface (WUI). Communities can manage risk by limiting new development through WUI codes and conservation efforts. Where changing wildfire conditions pose risks to existing buildings, communities can enact landscape regulations that require property owners to decrease flammable vegetation around buildings, creating defensible spaces. In San Diego, for example, the fire department requires 100 feet of vegetation management around buildings.

Communities’ risk can also be managed by contributing to forest resilience beyond city limits.  For instance Flagstaff, Arizona, issued $10 million in bonds in 2013 to support the U.S. Forest Service in thinning growth in areas around the city and to offset a federal funding deficiency.

Regional resilience initiatives also have a role to play in wildfire preparedness. Northwestern states formed the International Transformation Resilience Coalition, a broader initiative made up of more than 250 mental health, trauma treatment, resilience, climate, and other professions, who train leaders and organizations on handling and raising awareness of climate challenges to spur community resilience action.

Greater Action Needed

Communities and states are acting, but they need more resources and federal leadership to become more resilient. The federal government should fund further wildfire resilience studies, better assessments of wildfire risk, and ensure that the Forest Service has the resources needed to restore forests while also fighting fires. Federal funding and support can enable communities to raise awareness, prepare, enact resilient building codes, and manage high-risk forests near communities.