Counting the hidden costs of North Bay, California wildfires on businesses, residents
Wildfires are burning a hole in California’s wallet — and not just state government’s.
With no place in California immune to the increasing, raging infernos that barrel over communities, fires touch industry and peoples’ pocketbooks in dozens of ways, from insurance and tourism losses to home hardening and fire prevention costs.
First, there’s the obvious. Fire suppression costs for the state thus far this fiscal year have reached $1.3 billion in the 2021 fiscal year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported this week. That’s more than $30 for every resident in the state.
In comparison, that expense 40 years ago was almost $12 million.
“This is only one aspect of fighting fire,” Cal Fire Deputy Director Nick Schuler told the Business Journal, referring to just the fire suppression costs.
One way people pay for fires is to make sure their homes and businesses don’t burn.
John Farrow’s Santa Rosa firm rebuilt The Oaks at Fountaingrove with all fire-resistant materials for the 2,000 units after the October 2017 Tubbs Fire. Rebuilding the 100,000-square-foot complex cost $60 million to erect, over three times its initial cost 20 years ago.
“It’s exponentially higher because of the cost of materials. With these new fire safe standards, The Oaks is just not going to burn down,” he said, adding the supply chain shortages as contributing to the additional expense. “I’d say materials have gone up 25 to 30% in the last five years and 100% in the last 30.”
With the Business Journal reporting lumber exceeding 400% in higher pricing, Farrow contends “the perfect storm” of events have played out to make improved construction an expensive firefighting tool. He listed a labor shortage and inflation coinciding with the high cost of materials.
“Well, at least lumber has gone down to being 70% higher (than pre-pandemic levels),” he said.
Strength in numbers
Oak Forest Homeowners Association’s 50-plus households have collectively spent about $240,000 in the last two years on fire abatement, including tree trimming and cutting as well as installing an irrigation system, mowing and clearing brush that serves as “ladder” fuels to larger fires that spread to trees. Oak Forest is a subset HOA to the 4,700-resident Oakmont development in Sonoma Valley.
Aside from Oak Forest’s landscaping efforts, most of the homeowners chipped in to “harden” their homes with clay tile roofs and small-hole exterior vents to guard against embers flying in — the main cause of structures burning down.
Sonoma County residents have seen the devastation firsthand.
Past Oak Forest HOA President Jane Garlinghouse remembers October 2017 like it was yesterday.
“You know, I looked out this deck one night and saw the Tubbs Fire on that ridge and Nuns burning over there and thought we’d better get out of here. My daughter was terrified,” she said.
Since then, the Oak Forest neighborhood has evacuated three times, with the latest threat being the Glass Fire that roared through the Napa Valley and over Hood Mountain into a regional park bordering Sonoma’s Wine Country.
One area hasn’t burned — the forest-lined neighborhood that butts up to Trione-Annadel State Park, where thick, overgrown brush has besieged the forest.
“They haven’t done a damn thing up there,” Garlinghouse said.
California State Parks District Superintendent Maria Mowrey admitted more could be done to the region’s parkland, in particular on Trione-Annadel’s 5,000-plus acres.
State Parks cut a firebreak on Bennett Ridge west of the park but warned embers can land from miles away. A tree-cutting project is also underway at Jack London Historic State Park, where a nonnative eucalyptus grove thrives near the entrance. The tree species will be removed from another site at the Trione-Annadel Lawndale Road entrance.
Along with a $2 billion budget line item the state has allocated for preventing wildfires and addressing drought, State Parks has spent $510,000 in the last two years on fire prevention methods, a big departure for an agency with a mission to refrain from clear cutting the environment in order to maintain habitat for wildlife and other species.
“We have to manage for biodiversity,” she said.
While State Parks officials wrestle with protecting species, lawmakers are covering liability issues that come up should prescribed burns get out of control.
Two California Senate bills, SB 332 introduced by Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and SB 170 from Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, will establish a pilot program that essentially covers the liability of prescribed burns by setting aside $20 million in a fire claims fund as part of a wildfire resilience budget. They await Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.