Orange County Supervisors voted 4-1 to green light residential development in an area Cal Fire calls “a very high fire hazard severity zone.” Only a decade ago, the same Esperanza Hills area was the site of a chaotic evacuation and the destruction of 381 homes after a wildfire tore through the neighborhood. Wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecosystem, and many scientists and experts have rightly pointed out that our policies of fire containment aggravate the problem.
But as a changing climate increases the occurrence of wildfires across the West, putting more homes at risk, it’s reasonable to question those who would build more and more homes in areas destined for another disaster. Especially since it’s tax payers who pick up the tab.
According to Dr. Kimiko Barrett of Headwaters Economics – a sustainability focused think tank based in Montana – half of all costs associated with wild fires are paid at the local level, by homeowners, businesses, and government agencies. “The irony is that we, as taxpayers, are paying for the protection of homes that are built in high-risk areas,” said Dr. Barrett said in an interview with laist.com. In a full report, she wrote “the consequences actually aren’t borne by the people who are approving these developments.”
This stands in contrast to what many otherwise might expect, given the common practice of declaring “States of Emergency” and appealing for State and Federal aid. In reality, taxpayers cover the inevitable cost for this subset of homeowners and the developers who build massive homes for the wealthy in areas known to be dangerous. Orange County Supervisors, drooling over the expected $8.25 million yearly income in property taxes, are more than happy to profit on this moral hazard in order to fill their coffers. In a State like California, where Prop 13 effectively caps property taxes on pre-existing homes, developments like these in Esperanza Hills become especially lucrative for local governments. And even fire fighters have approved the development, considering their costs are fully reimbursed by federal agencies. But it certainly isn’t in the interest of homeowners and citizens, to subside the cost to the community by those who choose to put their families and homes in the direct path of to-be-expected destruction.
As a 2006 Inspector General’s report put it, homeowners in these high-risk areas have put the burden on the federal government to write check after check:
“Forest Service’s (FS) wildfire suppression costs have exceeded $1 billion in 3 of the past 6 years. FS’ escalating cost to fight fires is largely due to its efforts to protect private property in the wildland urban interface (WUI)1 bordering FS land. Homeowner reliance on the Federal government to provide wildfire suppression services places an enormous financial burden on FS, as the lead Federal agency providing such services. It also removes incentives for landowners moving into the WUI to take responsibility for their own protection and ensure their homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks. Assigning more financial responsibility to State and local government for WUI wildfire protection is critical because Federal agencies do not have the power to regulate WUI development. Zoning and planning authority rests entirely with State and local governments.”Until the cost of these developments is paid by those creating the risk or the nature of the risk is assessed realistically, nothing will change. Encroachment into natural habitat should always be weighted more skeptically than other development. Given the material increase in fire activity in the state, this balancing should be weighted even more strongly towards restraint. The failure to do so provides another example of poor governance and interplay between private financial self-interests and complacent politicians.
Until the cost of these developments is paid by those creating the risk or the nature of the risk is assessed realistically, nothing will change. Encroachment into natural habitat should always be weighted more skeptically than other development. Given the material increase in fire activity in the state, this balancing should be weighted even more strongly towards restraint. The failure to do so provides another example of poor governance and interplay between private financial self-interests and complacent politicians.