Should we rebuild homes in wildfire zones?

New Republic

By Emily Atkin

If Northern California’s famous wineries could survive Prohibition, there’s no doubt they’ll make it through this year’s wildfires. That’s the attitude of Michael Honig, chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners trade association, who told New England Cable News this week that the 14 wineries damaged or destroyed by the ongoing blazes would not only rebuild, but come back stronger. “This is a short-term setback,” he said.

It may take some time, but other Californians will eventually adopt Honig’s determination to reconstruct the thousands of structures lost to the ongoing blazes, which are the deadliest and most destructive in state history. Real estate journalist and investor Brad Inman is sure of it. “As a journalist, [I’ve written] stories about post-disaster rebuilding in places like Oakland and San Francisco after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; Los Angeles after the 1994 Northridge earthquake; and visited Phuket after the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand,” he wrote this week. “I was always struck by people’s fierce will to rebuild.” Not long after the historic Oakland hills firestorm in 1991 destroyed 3,500 homes, families started to put their neighborhood back together, Inman recalled. Eventually, they created an even better Oakland hills—one with higher property values and better public works.

This is an understandable response. People displaced by fires need new homes, of course, and naturally they would do it on the land they still own. And insurance policies usually provide the means to do so. But our planet is different today, as is our understanding of what constitutes smart, sustainable development. Wildfires are wreaking more havoc; California’s ten most destructive wildfires on record have all occurred in the last 30 years. That’s partly just because there’s more stuff to burn: more structures, more cars, more people. But it’s also because of human-caused climate change, which makes it more likely that wildfires burn longer and stronger.

So just as we grapple with questions about rebuilding in flood zones as the sea level rises, we must grapple with rebuilding in wildfire-prone zones. Is it sensible reconstructing an entire community that could just burn down again? Is it worth the public cost, and at the risk of more firefighters’ lives? If so, can we build in a way that decreases the risk of catastrophic damage?


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