‘California burning’: How Napa Valley contends with wildfire season

By Dave Lee, Financial Times, August 9, 2022

“In California, a state with 33 million acres of forest that has been in drought for much of this century, the past two years have seen fires reach unprecedented levels, according to Cal Fire.

“There’s now an increasing realization among local businesses and private organizations like Napa Firewise that the private sector must step up [to help with wildfire mitigation projects]— from the utility companies burying cables underground, to the vineyards funding private firefighters, to the insurers and homebuilders being encouraged to work together to make more resilient communities.

“[Mike] Wilson [director of Napa Firewise] says the work Firewise does with private funding rather than grant money has an upper hand as it allows them to cut out the ‘green tape’ that can delay treatment projects by many months while environmental and archaeological approvals are sought.

“However, private funds make up only a fraction of the revenue Napa Firewise has at its disposal — about 6 percent.

“[W]hile wildfires can be started by arsonists or lightning strikes or bizarre accidents, the majority are ignited by electrical infrastructure. In the areas it protects, Cal Fire has said 74 percent of wildfires between 2018 and 2020 were caused by issues with electrical power, such as vegetation blowing onto cables due to strong winds.

“[M]itigation work is also being undertaken by Pacific Gas and Electric, the largest utility provider in the state.

“[P]rogress on [Governor] Newsom’s pledge of having 1 million acres treated [for wildfire mitigation] each year [is uncertain]. An investigation carried out by a coalition of public service broadcasters in California determined that Cal Fire has been unable to track precisely how much work has been completed.

“[Cyril Chappellet, president and chief executive of his family’s prestigious winery] says private firefighters must be allowed to supplement the work of the state authorities… . ‘[Cal Fire goes to] places that have the most lives threatened and protects those places first. But it’s really important that we have private firefighting companies to come protect us because the resources for the state and CalFire are minimalistic.’

“[Two fellows at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where they have studied wildfire mitigation] are calling for insurance companies, using input from government and climate scientists, to better assess risk over future years; and then … offer financial incentives to encourage stronger homebuilding in return for lower premiums in the long run.”

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