California’s Wildfire Dilemma: Put Houses or Forests First?

Smoke on black background

There is a limit to how much federal taxpayers should have to spend to fight fires and cull trees so that well-off Californians can live near hiking trails.

November 29, 2021
Jim Hinch - Bloomberg

As record-breaking fires blacken millions of acres in California and elsewhere in the West this year, politicians are mostly sticking to a standard script in response. President Joe Biden’s proposed budget this year includes a $500 million boost to what the White House calls “forest management” and other efforts to reduce wildfire risk. In July, California lawmakers approved $1.5 billion in similar prevention spending.

The funds are in addition to the $2 billion the federal government spends each year fighting fires — a figure twice what it was 10 years ago and roughly five times more than in the 1980s and 1990s. A study last year found that in 2018, wildfires in California caused $148.5 billion in economic damage, including $46 billion outside the state.

Roughly one in three American houses is now in what forest scientists call the wildland-urban interface, where growing cities, remote workers, second-home buyers and commuters priced out of other housing markets are often pushing into fire-prone regions. A 2017 study found that 900,000 homes in the Western U.S. worth a combined $237 billion were “at high risk for fire damage.”



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