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California Has Issues With Wildfire Data, And Experts Say It's Complicating The Fire Fight

Firefighters defend a home along CA-29 near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park outside Calistoga, CA, Thursday. Oct. 1, 2020.
Andrew Nixon
Firefighters defend a home along CA-29 near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park outside Calistoga, CA, Thursday. Oct. 1, 2020.

California has a data issue and it's a big deal as fire seasons and climate change worsens, according to a new report around the cost of wildfires.

“Fire has really changed the situation and we just need to figure out now — throwing in climate change — how to manage this problem and keep our state and our economy on track,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

There’s a lot of data being collected — everything from acres burned from fires to fire personnel — but Wara says it's not all helpful for making decisions.

“It's not necessarily being synthesized into a statewide number that becomes useful for state policymakers trying to make decisions,” he said.

The report highlights the need for governments, both large and small, across California to create a uniform system to share information. Wara says creating such a database could save lives, potentially reduce the pace and scale of fires and unite the state in preventing catastrophic wildfires. The study was put together by the California Council on Science and Technology, or CCST, which responds to requests from the legislature, the governor and other state agencies to provide expert advice.

The group of scientists and researchers sought to answer the basic question of the costs of wildfires. But they weren’t able to answer that question because even though some data is being collected it’s not being measured systematically.

“One aspect of this problem is that if we don't know, if we don't have good estimates of the big costs, we don't know how much to spend to prevent them,” said Wara.

The study found that across the state there aren't comprehensive statewide databases to track things like wildfire prevention(like prescribed burns) or health impacts from air quality. There were even insufficient data sources for measuring the cost and safety impacts of power shutoffs.

Co-author Teresa Feo, and senior science officer with CCST, says creating comprehensive data sets are important for understanding how to create “effective prevention and mitigation strategies.”

Some of the biggest data gaps are around health losses from wildfires, like smoke and trauma, and the costs to the uninsured when properties or homes are damaged or lost. Feo says better tracking and collective understanding of the costs are needed, but she says the group doesn’t have a best path forward for those issues.

One issue is that agencies are using different methodologies, which results in sort of “an apples to oranges problem when you try to figure out what the statewide impact in a particular sector is,” she says.

But by bringing this kind of information together, figuring out how it correlates and having it available in a single place could present a fuller picture of what the greater effects of wildfire are.

“Beyond fire suppression efforts we don't really have good estimates of what's going on, how much it costs, and how cost-effective it is at reducing the impacts of this problem,” said Wara.

Wara says he’s unsure if a new agency should be created, but said a data clearinghouse could be built to synthesize all this information.

“We do need an effort … so that when the governor wants to know what are the water impacts from the fires we've had this season his staff can go and look in one place and get that answer,” he said. “Right now, that's not really possible.”

With relatives in the Santa Barbara area in the '60s and '70s he was always told wildfires were a big issue, but says the wildfires of today are “qualitatively different and that justifies a different level of investment, both in understanding the problem and also in the response to the problem.”

The study results suggest policymakers — as well as city, county and agency leaders — can improve effectiveness if they work together and fill in the gaps.

Study author Samuel Evans, professor of Public Policy at Mills College, says the state has a lot of fire planning and management agencies on the fire suppression side, but that info isn’t centralized or easy to access.

“Budget information on how much we invest in fuels management activities ... is out there somewhere,” he said. “It's kept by a specific agency. So, having a framework to sort of pull it all together, that that would be sort of the primary objective … We are just trying to get this conversation started.”

But at the end of the day the authors say Californians, both residents and policymakers, need to ask themselves a fundamental question and then take action.

“How big is the impact of wildfire on the values that we cherish and the things that make California, California,” Wara asks, “And how much as a result are we willing to invest in trying to make this problem better?

Copyright 2020 CapRadio

Ezra David Romero