In California there’s an opportunity to lead the nation in building resilience

The scourge of wildfires yet again in California has the hallmarks of recurrent disaster nightmare for America’s most populous state. Last year’s fire season — in which the Camp Fire took more than 80 lives in the devastated town of Paradise alone — may have been the first glimpse into a future of almost dystopian threats to communities throughout the state, and the nation. However, from understanding the complexity of the causes of these events, there is an opportunity to re-write the way California approaches wildfires. In doing so, they can also provide a much needed roadmap for resilience for the rest of the nation. 

There is no question that the climate crisis with increasingly dry, increasingly flammable woodland fuel and rising surface temperatures is contributing to more wildfires in California and elsewhere. Moreover, while we focus on renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, trying to prevent climate change can sometimes undermine the ability to adapt to the changes already taking place. 

In the case of California, some are praising the ability to keep the lights on with solar power and battery storage technologies, while others blame green energy policy on extensive infrastructure connecting urban areas to wind farms, and investing in renewable energy rather than in bolstering the safety of the existing infrastructure.

The fact is that both of these perspectives are correct. Renewable energy at the community and household level creates more options to keep the lights on when the grid goes down; to accelerate a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy at the expense of safety puts communities and lives at risk during that transition. 

The role of PG&E in contributing directly and indirectly to prior wildfires is the subject of billion dollar legal settlements and bankruptcy proceedings. The use of blackouts to prevent fires has also been the subject of much scrutiny in the impacts to communities as well as their readiness to handle the influx of those seeking information.    

While public utilities are often the focus of our frustration in these kinds of disasters, they are not the only culprits involved.

Government regulations and political promises set the priorities and nudge economic development to meet some combination of the public good and electoral strategies. However, these priorities are not always conducive to integrating the nuances of disaster resilience or investing in stuff, like electricity, that seems to work fine at the moment. 

The private sector is as much a part of building disaster resilience as the government agencies. This is not limited to the utility providers. Bonds and other financial instruments for development often do not adequately account for disaster risks when firms underwrite building communities in vulnerable areas. Developers are also often more incentivized to build than to build resilience.

There are more problems that the state of California needs to address, too. Better warning systems that advise people when the must immediately evacuate, more resilient cell phone towers, more road egress alternatives to allow for faster evacuations, more regulations and financial incentives for housing construction that may reduce rapid burning, insurance regulations that will disincentivize people who would prefer to live in the highest fire threat areas and so on. 

There is a now a window where the interests of investors, politicians and voters are likely aligned towards building resilience and keeping this from happening again.

Gov. Gary Newsom (D) and the state of California have the opportunity to take these ongoing threats, and re-frame how we approach disasters. Building resilience with strong partnerships with the private sector, integrating vulnerability and climate change into the costs of economic development, investing in modernizing infrastructure are all spoken of conceptually, but lack a blueprint for making it happen.

California can provide a roadmap for how to bring together the myriad of stakeholders and their competing agendas to work collaboratively toward a common goal of resilience. Achieving these things politically, legislatively, and practically with the whole community will provide the approaches and illustrative examples so desperately needed to build national resilience. But only if the state’s leadership that is up for the challenge. 

California is burning. Putting the fires out will be hard, but keeping them from burning again will be even harder. What is done next will determine how California and the nation fare in whatever disaster comes next.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel 

Irwin Redlener, M.D. is the director at the NCDP and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD. 


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