Wildfires Burn Through Housing, Hotel Profits In California
California has been hit hard by wildfires in the past two years, with this year’s fires burning across the state with no immediate end in sight.
Areas hit by last year’s fires continue to recover even as new parts of the state burn. Tourist draws, such as Yosemite, are once again trying to lure back visitors even as they plan for the elevated fire crisis that lies ahead for the state. As communities deal with this year’s fires, conversations are ongoing about how to better prepare for the future.
“This is part of a trend — a new normal — that we’ve got to deal with,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a news release earlier in August.
In 2017, a series of wildfires destroyed as many as 32,000 homes, 4,300 businesses and 8,200 vehicles or equipment in Northern and Southern California. The Department of Insurance received claims of nearly $12B from the victims of the wildfires that raged from October to December.
This year, another series of at least 15 major fires have set California ablaze. The Mendocino Complex Fire, by far the largest fire and now 79% contained, has torched more than 384,000 acres in Northern California counties.
A little farther north, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, the Carr Fire near Redding has scorched more than 227,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and 22 commercial structures and been connected to the deaths of eight people, including three firefighters, as of Sunday. Firefighters from across the nation as well as Australia and New Zealand have flown in to help battle the blaze, which is 83% contained.
In Southern California, the human-caused Holy Fire in Trabuco Canyon in Orange County had scorched nearly 23,000 acres and destroyed 18 homes in Orange and nearby Riverside counties. The fire was 92% contained on Sunday.
Across the U.S., there were 110 active fires burning over 1.9 million acres as of Sunday, with the bulk of those in the Western U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In California, there were eight active fires affecting more than 700,000 acres Sunday.
Many have placed the blame for the raging wildfires on the state’s years of intense drought and rising temperatures due to climate change.
UC Riverside Professor of Earth Sciences Thomas Scott said the contributing cause is far more complicated. Natural fires are healthy for the environment and part of the natural cycle of forest growth and renewal. In a state that continues to spike in population and expand into previously undeveloped areas, however, that natural cycle has been thrown out of whack and creates new dangers for people, housing and other development.
In some regions, like Yosemite Valley, wildfires are simply a part of life.
Yosemite Begins Recovery After Latest Wildfire
Yosemite Valley has been hit by fires over the last five years, but this year’s Ferguson Fire may have one of the greatest impacts on the region. Smoke and poor air quality led to the park closing for 20 days. The fire burned nearly 97,000 acres and is now 100% contained. The park closed during its peak season, when 15,000 to 20,000 people usually visit the daily.
“The impact is great,” Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau Executive Director Jonathan Farrington said. “This particular closure is unprecedented because of the length of time and … road closures.”
While the fire didn’t reach the park itself, it led to closures of roads leading into the park, impacting nearby towns that host park visitors. In 2017, Yosemite’s 4.3 million visitors spent $452M, Business Insider reports. It is the seventh-largest tourism-generating park in the national park system. One hotelier told Business Insider he lost about $200K from the closure and had to lay off staff.
Mariposa County’s largest business is tourism, and a majority of its discretionary income comes from its transient hotel occupancy tax, Farrington said. The last 13 months have been difficult: The Detwiler Fire in July 2017 led to an evacuation of the town of Mariposa and burned 2,500 acres. In April, the park closed for a few days because of flash flooding.
“We are used to adverse conditions, whether it’s wildfires, flooding, rock slides,” Farrington said. “Mother Nature wants to take the Sierra back from us and we try to work with her best we can.”
While business losses from the latest closure still need to be tallied, Farrington said the lost lodging revenue could exceed $300K per night. More than $10M was potentially lost during the closure, and that doesn’t include ancillary businesses, he said. A lot of vacation rentals and hotels remained open that were farther from the fire, but even those had cancellations.
The Tourism Bureau has started a media campaign to ask people to support Mariposa County by visiting the park and spending their tourism dollars.
“We need people to return as quickly as possible,” Farrington said. “Yosemite is open and virtually untouched. Hotels, restaurants and retail need people to come and visit … and help us recover from these series of events.”
Sonoma, in the heart of the state’s wine country, initially struggled after last year’s wildfires, but the bigger issue was that people stayed away thinking the area’s residents needed time to heal and recuperate, he said.
“People felt guilty to drink wine and dine and party when it wouldn’t be appropriate, but that is exactly what the county needed after the fire,” he said. “In this situation, it really is going to take people to come visit.”
People might be discouraged by seeing burnt areas up to the roadway to Yosemite, but the fire never reached the park. The good news is over the last five years, wildfires pretty much burned the immediate area around Yosemite, so the park is safer than ever before, he said. There simply isn’t enough fuel to spark more wildfires.
A New Approach
There needs to be a new approach to how wildfires are prepared for and managed, according to UC Riverside Professor of Earth Sciences Richard Minnich. He said forest and vegetation management is key to controlling future fires.
Firefighters have gotten too good at knocking down fires on mountainsides and open areas too quickly, he said. The result is a lot of fuel is left for later fires.
“When you burn off chaparral, you have bought yourself a grace period, meaning the landscape is not going to reburn on you because there’s nothing to burn,” Minnich said.
Much of the dry brush and vegetation fueling the fires in Mendocino, Trabuco Canyon and Redding has not burned in a long time, Minnich said. There will be low probability these areas will burn in the same manner again in the future, he said.
The Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau’s Farrington said encroachment of homes into wildlands prone to fires has increased the chances of fires. People like to have trees and shrubs near their homes that make it difficult for firefighters to fight wildfires.
There also has been a lack of forest management like there used to be, with removal of fewer dead and large trees suffocating forests in recent years, he said.
“The forests are strong, but not when [the trees] are sick,” he said. “We have to come together with solutions even if they will not make everybody happy.”
What’s The Solution?
Despite continued fire risks throughout the state, cities continue to rebuild in fire-prone areas. Prevention, landscape management and making homes more fire-resistant have been a key part of the discussion in communities with elevated risk.
Cities like Anaheim and Oakland have been pushing forward with enforcement of vegetation management around properties. The city of Anaheim often uses goats to clear dry brush and eat vegetation along mountainsides next to wildfire-vulnerable communities.
In May, Brown formed a Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee that will explore ways to strengthen fire prevention activities and allocation of wildfire prevention and response costs and create policies.
The committee is still in its early stages, but it will hold a series of public hearings from experts in the coming months “to decide the best way to protect Californians from the continued threat of wildfires,” state Sen. Bill Dodd, who represents Napa and is co-chairman of the 10-member committee, said in a news release.
The committee will engage local communities, improve hazard mapping and public warning and look for ways to reduce wildfire risk and make improvements to infrastructure. Last week, the committee heard from a panel of forest management experts.
UC Riverside’s Scott said more needs to be done to fire-harden homes, especially in suburban communities with a risk of wildfire. Fire-hardening homes includes re-roofing with materials that are less likely to burn, covering vents in the eaves and other parts of the building to block embers and using ignition-resistant materials for structures such as decks and patio covers.
“Houses have gotten a lot better in terms of construction quality for fire-hardening in the last 30 years but it is the tip of the iceberg,” Scott said.
Minnich offers another part of the solution: Bring in the cows.
“We need to graze the grass,” he said.
But no animal — goat or cow — will eat the chaparral in the forest. In that case, he recommends monitoring a fire when it begins in an open area.
“We need to not just put the fire out ASAP but to babysit it, watch it,” Minnich said, adding the more the fire burns the existing chaparral, the less vegetation that area will have for future fires to consume.
“We shouldn’t allow the the landowner or firefighters to knock it down ASAP,” he said.