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California Was Set To Spend Over $1 Billion to Prevent Wildfires. Then Came COVID-19

Jun 7, 2020
Originally published on June 10, 2020 4:25 pm

With the coronavirus pandemic eroding state budgets across the country, many communities risk having this disaster make them less prepared for looming climate-driven disasters.

Still recovering from devastating wildfires, California was poised to spend billions of dollars to prepare for future fires and other extreme weather disasters. The infrastructure projects, designed to make communities and homes more resistant to wildfire, have long been overlooked, fire experts say.

But with a $54 billion budget deficit, the programs are being put on hold.

"It's really a shame," says Alexandra Syphard, a fire scientist at Sage Underwriters, a wildfire insurance company. "Obviously COVID has been a shame on so many different levels. We were ramping up to provide what I believe is one of the most progressive and important investments in terms of fire risk that there could be."

With more than 25,000 homes and buildings lost over the last three years, California has focused recent spending on adding new firefighting crews and emergency response capacity. This year, the state planned on investing in something that could lessen the need for fire-fighting: "hardening" millions of homes to make them more resistant to burning.

Similar home-retrofitting programs, piloted in communities around the state, have been very popular.

"Up here in the mountains, a wood-shingled roof is another name for a matchbook," says Bill Seavy, a homeowner in South Lake Tahoe.

Until a few years ago, Seavy had a wood-shingled roof, but he replaced it through a program that incentivized homeowners to install fire-resistant roofing. The local fire agency, the Lake Valley Fire Protection District, created the program after the 2007 Angora Fire, which destroyed almost 300 buildings and homes in the region.

"In Lake Tahoe, we're vulnerable, and there's three million people in California that live in areas like this where you're vulnerable," says Seavy. "So we've got to do everything we can."

Through federal funding from FEMA, homeowners could get 70 percent of their cost covered for a replacement roof. Wood roofs can fuel the spread of wildfires by catching burning embers.

"Most homes are not burned by fires just marching up to them and burning them down," says Syphard. "Most are destroyed because the fires are occurring during really high wind conditions and there tend to be these burning embers that can fly kilometers ahead of the fire front. And it's these burning embers that tend to get into all the little nooks and crannies of a house."

Even small fixes to a house can make a big difference, like putting mesh screens on attic vents or covering the eaves under a roof.

"Things that in particular would prevent embers from penetrating the house are super significant in making a difference between whether a home survives a fire or not," says Syphard.

Last year, California lawmakers approved the first major statewide program for incentivizing such home-retrofits. In January, Governor Gavin Newsom announced $100 million in state and federal money to help homeowners replace roofs and make their homes more fire-resistant, particularly in low-income communities where upgrades may be out of reach for many.

But in May, Newsom proposed suspending the program, citing the need for deep budget cuts to offset the falling tax revenue from the economic downturn.

"We learned that in the Paradise fires, homes built or retrofitted with home-hardening materials and features often withstood the deadly flames and stood to live another day," says California Assemblymember Jim Wood, who authored the bill to create the program. "It is a sorry state when we refuse to acknowledge the importance, and financial benefits, of investing in prevention."

A test house hit by blown embers at a research facility run by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety in South Carolina last spring. Half of the test home has cedar siding and other common combustible building materials. The other half has common fire-resistant materials such as cement siding.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

Two other substantial climate initiatives were also put on hold in the Governor's revised budget, which would have funded projects to prepare for fires, droughts, floods and sea level rise. Those include a $4.75 billion Climate Resilience Bond scheduled for the November ballot and $1 billion in state funding over five years for climate-related projects. State lawmakers are still trying to push ahead with a bill that would put a $7 billion climate and economic recovery bond on the ballot.

The wildfire funding left in California's budget this year will likely go to firefighting and emergency response.

"We're staring down the barrel of another intense wildfire season given how dry it was this winter," says Wade Crowfoot, California's Secretary for Natural Resources. "So we are anticipating actually having to juggle disaster response from different disasters."

Supporters of the resiliency initiatives say spending money to prepare for disasters in advance is substantially more economical than waiting for them to hit.

"A dollar spent today saves you about six dollars in future emergencies," says Kate Gordon, director of California's Office of Planning and Research. "And if you think about that, it's really logical. The cost of emergency response is enormous. Look at Paradise — rebuilding an entire town and relocating folks."

State officials say they're looking for other ways to fund climate preparation in hopes of preserving momentum after the recent disasters.

"We are retooling in real time to really continue to drive forward those same priorities, particularly climate resilience, in a more constrained fiscal environment," says Crowfoot. "Our residents get it. Californians want us actually to do more to protect communities from impacts."

California, like many states, is looking to federal stimulus funding to fill in the gaps, since climate-related projects could qualify as infrastructure spending. They're also looking at partnerships with private industry.

"There is a moment at which this kind of economic disaster creates opportunity for thinking differently about how to build forward," says Gordon. "Not to bounce back, but bounce forward."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A wildfire erupted last night in Los Angeles, lighting up hills still scarred by another blaze just a few years ago. After so many devastating wildfires in recent years, California was set to spend more than a billion dollars to prepare for future fires, which are expected to get worse in a warming climate. But with the pandemic, much of that spending is on hold. NPR's Lauren Sommer reports on initiatives facing cuts.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Bill Seavy is one of those California homeowners who got a wildfire wake-up call. His came when the Angora Fire burned within a few miles of his South Lake Tahoe home in 2007.

BILL SEAVY: That was very devastating. Lost, I don't know, a hundred and some odd homes.

SOMMER: So after that, he did something mundane but crucial in fire country.

SEAVY: I come out here.

SOMMER: Via video chat, he shows me his new roof.

SEAVY: So it's a fire retardant shingle.

SOMMER: His old roof was made of wood shingles which can easily catch embers that are blown ahead of wildfires.

SEAVY: Up here in the mountains, a wood-shingled roof is another name for a matchbook.

SOMMER: Which is why the local fire agency helped pay for Seavy's new roof. The Lake Valley Fire Protection District got a grant from FEMA to help replace hundreds of wood roofs. It covered 70% of Seavy's cost.

SEAVY: It's great. I mentioned it to some friends up in North Tahoe, and they weren't offered that program.

SOMMER: California wants to offer that program across the state with millions of homes at risk. In January, Governor Gavin Newsom announced $100 million to help homeowners make their homes more fire resistant, but then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: Goes without saying that these are not ordinary times.

SOMMER: ...The pandemic created a massive budget shortfall. So Newsom proposed cutting the wood roof program. Also tabled were two other major funds to help communities prepare for all sorts of climate change impacts. That includes a billion dollars in state funding and an almost $5 billion climate bond on the November ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWSOM: We still don't have the people and the equipment we need in this state, with the hots getting so much hotter and dries is getting so much drier.

SOMMER: That problem isn't going away, says Alexandra Syphard, a fire scientist at Sage Underwriters.

ALEXANDRA SYPHARD: It's really a shame. We were ramping up to provide what I believe is one of the most progressive and important investments in terms of fire risk that there could be.

SOMMER: Syphard says even small fixes to a house can make a big difference, like putting mesh screens on attic vents or covering the eaves under a roof.

SYPHARD: Things that in particular would prevent embers from penetrating the house are super significant in making a difference between whether a home survives a fire or not.

SOMMER: Those kind of long-term investments to reduce fire risk are ones that California has historically underspent on. They're easy to put off. The California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot says the recent disasters have made them a priority.

WADE CROWFOOT: Our residents get it. Californians want us actually to do more to protect their communities from impacts.

SOMMER: With budget cuts, though, the state's wildfire spending this year will most likely be going to firefighting and emergency response.

CROWFOOT: We're staring down the barrel of another intense wildfire season given how dry it was this winter.

SOMMER: Still, California, like many states, is hoping federal stimulus funding will fill in the gaps. Kate Gordon directs California's Office of Planning and Research.

KATE GORDON: There is a moment at which this kind of economic disaster creates opportunity for thinking differently about how to build forward, not to bounce back, but to bounce forward.

SOMMER: She says many climate change projects are infrastructure projects, so federal spending could be a chance for states to avoid falling too far behind.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LCD SOUNDSYSTEM'S "BLACK SCREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.