It’s one thing to know the risk, and it’s another to do something about it.
Did we know there could be another racist attack like the one in Buffalo? Yes. We have seen white supremacy gain strength. We have seen the proliferation of weapons of military quality. A trail of blood 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 living on an overheated planet, what do we do to minimize the suffering?
And so, when I saw Christopher Flavelle and Nadja Popovich’s article and maps on wildfires on Monday, I had more questions. I wanted to know what to do with these new projections.
I contacted Chris. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Chris, hi. On your maps, large swathes of the American West, including much of California, where my family and friends live, turn ochre-red in 30 years, which means they should face a risk much higher wildfire in 2052. Are we just supposed to get out of all these areas?
People are unlikely to abandon their homes even in the most fire-prone areas, and it’s probably unnecessary right now. State and local authorities can use this new data to prioritize where they spend scarce dollars to reduce risk. In some places, this could mean thinning out nearby forests and other vegetation that serves as fuel. Elsewhere, it could be making sure firefighters have the equipment they need. In other places, it might 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 raising the structure at a cost of $100,000 or more, reducing your fire exposure doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive. If you have a wooden roof, consider replacing it with something less likely to burn. If you have single-glazed windows, consider lining them to prevent embers from coming through. Create what is called a “defensive space” around your home by removing anything that can catch fire within five feet of the structure. You can find more tips here.
California has a statewide building code for new homes built in fire-prone areas. This includes things like defensible space, double-glazed windows, and non-combustible roofs. What if I am a tenant?
A tenant has fewer options. First, be careful where you rent and get renter’s insurance. If you have to leave your home because of a fire, the level of federal assistance depends on whether state authorities seek a federal disaster declaration, whether the federal government grants it, and then what type of assistance provided by the government. Tenants forced to vacate their accommodation may be entitled to help from FEMA. Don’t count on it.
Second, assess your risks now. If you live in a fire-prone area and are concerned that your landlord is taking this threat seriously, consider requesting an assessment from your local fire department. Inform your landlord. Remember that there is a financial incentive to reduce these risks. Insurance may not cover the full cost of rebuilding after a fire.
Wow. This seems designed not to protect the poor, who are more likely to rent. We talked about what individuals can do to protect themselves. What can people do to reduce risk in their community?
If new development is 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 if local building codes correspond to the risk. If your community is surrounded by forest and has only one entrance and exit road, ask your local authorities what to do if that road is closed. If you live near state or federally managed land, you can ask your state or federal representative when authorities last cleared excess vegetation to reduce the risk of fire of forest.
What if I’m thinking of going on vacation to a fire-prone area? Should I just avoid seeing the California redwoods?
If you are going to a fire-prone area, avoid going there during times of heightened danger. Check before you leave if there are any fires nearby that could reach the area you are visiting. Develop 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 experienced the fastest population growth, including California and Texas. People are literally headed for danger. Should we rethink life in forested hills and canyons?
One way to reduce risk now is to put fewer people at risk. So, rather than continuing to build homes (and schools and shopping malls) further out in the wild, from a security perspective, it is better to build denser urban communities, where people are not at proximity to dense and dry forests. In much of the country, living so close to the wilderness can already be too risky.
Before leaving: an individual mission to make compost cool
Domingo Morales, 30, is from the Bronx. His street name was “Reckless” and he had more than his share of tough times growing up. But one day, Morales saw a notice for a non-profit organization that trains young people in green jobs. He learned how to build garden beds and how composted soil strengthens plants and reduces greenhouse gases. After winning a $200,000 prize, he created “Compost Power,” to bring his new found passion to public housing in four New York boroughs, with more sites planned. “For many years, compost has been this evil, smelly, upper-class thing that white people do,” Morales said. “But it really is a great introduction to sustainability as a whole.” You can read his story here.
Thanks for reading. We will be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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