There are some serious forest fires burning all across California at the moment and the smoke from distant counties has turned the air here in San Francisco into an autumnal barbecue flavored mist. Bits of white flaky ash are drifting down from the sky like cherry blossoms. Last year around this time there were similar fires that burned entire neighborhoods destroying thousands of homes and businesses. This year it’s significantly worse.
I have a young German visitor here this week and we’ve been exploring the city and countryside together. His trip coincides with the unfolding drama and we’ve been talking about the larger context. Germany just experienced one of the driest years on record with droughts that affected agricultural production. There’s a similar situation in Ireland, Sweden, Ukraine, Australia, and elsewhere.
There’s nothing new about forest fires or droughts in California. They’re as omnipresent and recurring as earthquakes. However, there are a lot more people and buildings in more places now than there used to be as the population expands and migrates to more remote locations. So the same fires cause more damage. And these recent fires are also much more extensive and intense than before. Is this a side effect of a century of fire suppression and forestry management that inadvertently allowed massive fuel loads to accumulate? Or is this part of new human induced climate change? All of the above?
The German guy and I were having this conversation in my car as he snapped photos of the smoke and ash through the windows. He had just flown halfway around the planet to get to California with side stops in the Caribbean and Canada along the way. If people are contributing to a shift in the atmosphere by burning hydrocarbons… we’re it.
Suggesting that people drive and fly less and live in a slightly different manner is a cultural and political non-starter. Unfortunately business-as-usual is producing increasingly unpleasant side-effects. Change may come, but it isn’t going to be planned or voluntary. Instead we’re all going to absorb a variety of unintended consequences. A lot of folks prefer a random surprise natural disaster rather than pointy headed experts dictating how we all live. Es ist mir alles Wurst.
A few months ago I explored the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa that had been devastated by last year’s fires. As I walked around and talked to people I asked how different people faired in the aftermath. Folks who were fully insured and had additional resources to fall back on were rebuilding and the local authorities were working hard to expedite the required paperwork. The political and financial pressure to get things back to normal overrode some of the usual institutional friction that typically makes building anything in the region painfully slow and overly complex.
For some properties the rebuilding process involves the Jacuzzi Effect. Destroyed homes are often rebuilt larger and to a better standard than the original since a disaster provides a unique opportunity for a do-over. For those families with enough insurance money and additional resources, why not install that hot tub they had always wanted?
For others the process of rebuilding was overwhelming and the numbers simply didn’t add up. Many homeowners were underinsured and discovered that what had been a sizable asset was instantly transformed into an enormous liability. The cost of rebuilding in an already tight market with a limited labor pool and inflated construction material prices meant the only option was to sell the damaged lot and walk away. People with outstanding debts didn’t always have much money left over. Then where do they go? Renters were in an even worse position. Without renter’s insurance or cash on hand most found themselves in fierce competition for already scarce accommodations with people with far more resources. These folks not only lost their homes and possessions, but many were compelled to leave town or the state entirely and start over worse for wear.
The Journey’s End mobile home park provides another example of how different kinds of people are affected by the same tragic events. The predominantly elderly residents tended to own their homes, some free and clear of any mortgage, others carrying modest debt. The land under the homes was rented for $500 per month, which was extraordinarily reasonable for this part of California. After the fire they were all instantly homeless. The people who had proper insurance have the option of buying a new unit and finding a new rental space – although they will almost certainly have to relocate to an entirely different town, if not another state, in search of affordability. People who were renting, had insufficient coverage, or no insurance at all simply lost everything with no residual value to fall back on.
But the most tragic situation concerns the mobile homes that survived the fire intact. Since they weren’t damaged they can’t collect insurance. But the infrastructure that used to serve the park has been destroyed so the homes are legally uninhabitable. The land owner, the municipal authorities, and other interested parties all want the property to be redeveloped to a higher value use. That’s understandable. But it doesn’t do much for the old residents.
My take away is simple. Know who you are. Know where you fit in to the larger picture. Understand your specific risks. And plan accordingly. Insurance is critical. Make sure you have the right kinds. Don’t assume your old coverage is sufficient. And have a Plan B. It’s best to know exactly where you’ll land after a disaster and to have multiple options whatever your budget or circumstances.