Wildfires are inevitable, but wildfire disasters are not

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Toddi Steelman is co-director of the Fire Chasers Project at North Carolina State University and executive director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan.

 

As we saw in San Diego recently, wildfires are inevitable, but wildfire disasters are not. We can’t control the natural world, but we can control the built environment and the economic incentives that put us at risk.

Since the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona last year, the attention has been on the longer and hotter fire season and home-building patterns in the Western U.S. But the risk is nationwide. Since 2007, for example, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, California, Texas and Colorado have seen the most destructive fires in their histories.

Much has been said about the land-use policies that allow people to build in hazardous environments and the federal wildfire policy that subsidizes the risk most people face for living in the so-called wildland urban interface.

Less scrutiny has been devoted to the insurance industry, which is behind the curve in addressing the wildfire danger. Additionally, people living in hazardous areas must assume a greater share of risk management for their behavior.

The insurance industry is not more active for two reasons. First, losses from wildfire make up only 2% of total property and casualty claims. Tornadoes and hurricanes account for much bigger losses.

 

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