We didn’t start the fire… Oh wait, yes we did

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In this Nov. 8, 2018, file photo, a home burns during a wildfire in Paradise, Calif.  In 2018 , the devastation left by these wildfires amounted to $11.8 billion in insurance payouts, not even including the nearly $3 billion of debris clean up, nearly three times the cost of debris clean up when compared to the previous year.  Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

In this Nov. 8, 2018, file photo, a home burns during a wildfire in Paradise, Calif. In 2018, the devastation left by these wildfires amounted to $11.8 billion in insurance payouts, not even including the nearly $3 billion of debris clean up, nearly three times the cost of debris clean up when compared to the previous year. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

The cost of California’s wildfires are staggering. Every year, billions of dollars of costs are imposed on families, local and state governments, as well as private insurers as a result of the decimation left by these wildfires, not to mention the immeasurable cost of the loss of human life. In 2018, the devastation left by these wildfires amounted to $11.8 billion in insurance payouts, not even including the nearly $3 billion of debris clean up, nearly three times the cost of debris clean up when compared to the previous year. The costs for this year are already looking worse. PG&E, the utility company whose power lines have been linked as the cause of some of last year’s worst fires as well as various fires this year, estimates that this year costs will soar to nearly $6 billion, and that estimate only includes costs that will be imposed on the company. 

It would be dishonest to say that PG&E is responsible for California’s wildfires, despite the company having a major role in many of the major fires. California estimates that of wildfires caused between 2013-2017, only 9.4% were caused as a result of electrical power (with not all 9.4% due to power lines themselves). A plurality of the fires were caused by debris-burning, vehicles, equipment usage, campfires, arson, smoking and other human activities. Overall, humans are responsible for the vast majority of wildfires, with only 6.4% being caused by lightning strikes. It is clear that most of these fires are, in some form, avoidable.  

So how do we pull an ol’ Smokey Bear and work to prevent these forest fires? Is this an information issue in which people simply don’t realize the risks of some of these fire-causing behaviors? Is it a regulatory one, where the state of California as well as the federal government needs to hold its citizens and corporations to tighter standards surrounding any sort of activity that could cause a wildfire? Or are these fires simply unavoidable due to drought conditions and climate change related factors? 

All of these questions need to be comprehensively addressed in any sort of solution regarding California’s wildfires. While there isn’t any solution that will completely eliminate wildfires, issues such as smoking, campfire usage and debris burning can all be regulated by state government. With the costs of wildfires already being so high, there is a good argument to be made that effective government regulations and enforcement, despite likely increasing costs in the short term, will likely curb long-term damages. The state of California needs to hold companies such as PG&E accountable for their actions, ensure that they properly maintain their lines and require strict oversight on all utility companies.  

Again, due to human error and lighting strikes, in conjunction with environmental conditions caused by climate change and agricultural activity, large wildfires will likely never be totally eliminated. However, we can do our best as a society to implement positive changes to at least reduce the number and impact these disasters have on hundreds of communities.  


Cameron Cantelmo is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached at cameron.cantelmo@uconn.edu.

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