The recent atmospheric river effectively snuffed out wildfire season, and many are breathing a sigh of relief. While wildfires burned 2.5 million acres of California this year, that is nearly 40 percent less than the year before. Take heart while you can. Given the trend line, which shows ever more destructive fires over recent years, there are more apocalyptic fire seasons on the horizon.
Now that we have a brief pause (though actually, many fire professionals argue that fire “season” is continual at this point), it’s time to take stock of what works, what doesn’t and what we need to do to prepare for the dry, hot conditions that are never far away. A pair of the region’s United Way chapters did just that last week, connecting over Zoom to discuss what we know. The United Way of the Bay Area and the United Way of Wine Country hosted the event, and the South Coast’s indefatigable Rita Mancera provided some reporting from the ground.
It’s fair to say that those on the call consider the risk going forward to be existential for many. The scale of loss is staggering. Jeff Bellisario, executive director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute noted that fire losses actually put a dent in the state’s gross domestic product. One of every eight acres in California has burned in the last decade. Health care expenses rise notably in fire season and the insurance industry is still coming to grips with what climate change means for California homeowners going forward.
And the pain is not evenly distributed. Bellisario noted that the retail sector still hasn’t rebounded in Wine Country and those low-paying jobs were held by the people who can least afford temporary housing and the cost of rebuilding. You might be surprised to learn there are actually fewer people living in Sonoma County now than there were in 2015 — a direct result of recent fires.
“Disasters drive deeper inequality,” said Kevin Zwick, chief executive officer of the United Way of the Bay Area. “For some, fire is an inconvenience; for others, it is life-changing. Every time there is a wildfire, there are more people in need.”
Nobody knows this better than Mancera, who, along with a small army of volunteers and paid staffers at Puente, behaved heroically throughout the CZU Lightning Complex fires in southern San Mateo County. The nonprofit was the economic first-responder for untold people in southern San Mateo County, providing food, housing and comfort for weeks. Mancera herself was evacuated for four weeks even as she selflessly helped others.
She has some ideas for things to address in this breath of time before climate change and a spark combine to send us all scrambling again.
t“This is a chance to get a more robust communication system,” she told those on the call. She’s right and this seems to be one of the most vexing problems as thoughtful people plan for emergencies. Most people aren’t signed up for SMC Alerts, the official emergency channel of San Mateo County. Even if more were signed up, official communication is often late and spotty throughout emergencies here. It has not always been offered in Spanish or Mandarin. One hopeful sign: Consultants for the city of Half Moon Bay have been talking with stakeholders around the city in recent days with an eye toward an effective crisis communications plan. It’s been a long time coming and it isn’t here yet.
t Mancera would like to see subsidies so that everyone can harden their homes against wildfire. Creating defensible space is one thing if you can afford to have the work done; it’s another if you work two jobs just to put food on the table.
t “We need to diversify first-responders,” Mancera said, “and not just racial diversity, but also age and gender.” She’s right. However well-meaning, young white men in uniform, some bearing guns and badges, don’t always enjoy the trust of the people she represents. A more diverse fire service would also be helpful.
t And Mancera would like to see funds that can be drawn down in a heartbeat. She took pains to say funders — from big foundations down to individual donors — were generous and quick to respond to the 2020 fires. We should build on that with a region-wide plan to cut any remaining red tape when time is of the essence.
The Coastside dodged fire season this year. We may not next year. And eventually, it’s coming for us again. Planning must be constant.
— Clay Lambert