Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: This is How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis and how we make those things happen.
Alex: So as we’ve all seen in the news, the west has been on fire a lot this year.
[NEWS CLIP: 35 people are confirmed dead from those historic wildfires. Dozens of major fires are raging across the ...]
[NEWS CLIP: The fires are also creating thick smoke so hazardous California's governor says it's like smoking 400 cigarettes a day.]
[NEWS CLIP: Day after day it gets a little harder. A little worse, you know? A little bit more—oh my God, is this ever gonna end?]
Ayana: Is this ever going to end? It doesn't feel like it. As we record this episode, almost eight million acres have burned already this season, claiming more than 30 lives. 11 states currently have large active fires.
Alex: And today on the show, we’re diving into what is happening with the fires out west.
Ayana: We're going to talk about how these fires have changed by speaking with someone who has fought them for decades. We'll also take a trip back in time to meet a charming villain who’s partially to blame for these fires.
Alex: And we'll learn what we can do to keep our communities and ourselves safe in the future.
Alex: So Ayana, we're going to start today's show with an interview I did solo. You know, that happens from time to time. We're both busy people. We can't always be at every interview at the same time.
Alex: Alas. But I want to tell you about this one because this interview really helps explain how things got so bad out west, and what we can do about it.
Ayana: I'm ready. I'm excited, actually.
Alex: Yeah, I found this woman really interesting to talk to, and I think you will too. Her name is Bobbie Scopa, and she's been fighting fires out west for four decades, And I didn't fully realize this, but when you're talking about people who fight fires in the wilderness, that is not at all the image of the firefighter that I had in my head. You know, like, jumping out of a truck with a big hose. Bobbie says a lot of the work of fighting wildfires is just slowing down the fires by digging these things called firebreaks, these long paths where they clear out everything that could burn.
Bobbie Scopa: Cutting brush, digging up the dirt, throwing dirt with a shovel. It's not at all glamorous. It's not at all—you don't feel like a hero when you're out there throwing dirt at the fire.
Alex: It's like landscaping almost, it sounds like. You're sort of like digging.
Bobbie Scopa: It's like landscaping with some risk involved, yes.
Alex: So Bobbie started fighting fire in 1974. She just retired in 2018.
Alex: Yeah. [laughs] And during her four decades as a firefighter, she's had every job. She was a firefighter. She was a fire chief. She even did a stint for a while as the acting fire director for the entire US Forest Service. And one of the first things I asked her is, in the four decades that she has been fighting fires out west, have the fires themselves changed? And she said yeah, they’ve changed a lot.
Bobbie Scopa: I can recall being on a fire in 1974, and it was a 12,000-acre fire. And our supervisor, who in those days was called a fire control officer, I can remember the fire control officer saying to us, "You will never be on a fire this big. This is a once in a lifetime experience for you. You should feel lucky you got to be on this fire." He said it's the biggest fire you're ever going to be on. It's the biggest fire he had ever seen. At that point, he'd been in fire for 25, 30 years. And a 12,000 acre fire in 2020 is nothing. It's a little fire.
Alex: What's the biggest fire, you know, of the last five years?
Bobbie Scopa: This summer, I think we've had fires close to a million acres. I mean this summer, the fires have been a huge compared to past.
Alex: So what is going on? Why are fires in the four decades that you've been fighting them, what is behind this dramatic change?
Bobbie Scopa: I think it's a combination of items, and I don't think you can point to any one particular reason. But first off, I would say fire exclusion plays a role in this.
Ayana: What’s fire exclusion?
Alex: Fire exclusion, also known as fire suppression, is the practice of aggressively putting out every fire that occurs. And I am now going to tell you the story of how fire suppression came to shape fire policy in the United States, and how this practice is partly to blame for all the terrible fires we have out west right now. Are you ready to hear that story?
Ayana: Yeah, I'm ready. This is like story time.
Alex: Wildfire story time, with Alex and Ayana. So once upon a time, there was the American West. And people, of course, had been living there for millennia.
Alex: Before it was even called that. But by the turn of the 20th century, more and more non-Indigenous people were settling out west, building towns and train tracks. And in 1910, there was this particularly bad drought out west. And what we think happened is that sparks from all these trains caught fire, as they sometimes did, but because of the drought and these super windy conditions, a lot of these little fires kept on burning and spreading, and turned into this one massive firestorm.
Alex: And in just two days, three million acres burned across Northern Idaho, Western Montana, and even into parts of Washington State and British Columbia.
Alex: At least 86 people died, entire towns were destroyed. And the fire acquired a name, which was called the Big Burn, although it’s sometimes called the Big Blow-Up, because it felt almost like an explosion, it happened so fast.
Ayana: Wow. What year was this?
Alex: It was 1910. And this fire was so destructive that people at the time vowed, we are never going to let this happen again. From now on, fire is our enemy. When we see it pop up, we will put it out as soon as possible. We will do everything we can to keep this from happening again. And for decades, this is how we thought about fires here in the United States: You see it, you put it out right away. By the time Bobbie became a firefighter 60 years after the Big Burn, she said this policy was so clear they even had a nickname for it: The 10:00 AM policy.
Bobbie Scopa: Well, the 10:00 AM policy was, you base your strategy for this fire based on it being out at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning. So if a fire started at two in the afternoon, you better get after it hard and heavy, because the policy is you want that fire out by the next morning. You threw everything you had at it. As soon as I got the word, you know, if I was running this fire engine, you know, "Engine 134, respond to such and such area for a fire," there would be an air tanker launched at the same time. You know, the big slurry bomber.
Ayana: A slurry bomber. Is that like an airplane that has water in it?
Alex: Yes. That's exactly—it's one of those big airplanes that drops fire suppressants onto the fire. And so, you know, this policy on the one hand, it seems logical, right? Like, you see a fire, you need to put it out. But, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, biologist.
Ayana: Yes, Alex Blumberg?
Alex: Do you want to tell the people what’s wrong with that idea? I‘m not sure if you know this or not, so I didn't want to tell you something you already knew. But if you don’t know it, that's fine. I can just tell you.
Ayana: Oh, look at you trying not to mansplain to me. I appreciate that. I think, you know, fire is a natural part of ecological cycles. And not all fires get out of control. So some amount of natural burning helps to stabilize ecosystems.
Alex: Ecosystems, especially out west, that are what they call fire-adapted or even fire-dependent. For example, the lodgepole pine? A lot of the forests out west are made up of lodgepole pine. The pinecone, where the seeds are located, is sealed up with this resin, and the only way for the seeds to get out and germinate is for the pinecones to get so hot that the resin melts. And so without the occasional fire, lodgepole pines literally can’t reproduce.
Ayana: Nature, come on! This is, like, some ingenious techniques here. I'm impressed, continually impressed with nature.
Alex: There you go, stanning nature again.
Ayana: Always, everyday, everywhere.
Alex: [laughs] So the point is, like, fire isn’t always bad, and in fact sometimes it’s often exactly what needs to happen. And if you suppress fire, it hurts these ecosystems. But fire suppression also contributes to the worsening fires that we're seeing out west, because fire suppression leads to all this buildup of stuff out in the forest and wilderness areas, stuff that can burn. Like dead leaves and brush, small trees, the kind of material that can easily catch fire when it's hot and dry out. And because we spent a hundred years putting out almost every fire we could, we have forests and grasslands that are loaded with all this burnable stuff.
Ayana: It’s quite the backlog of burnables.
Alex: Yes. It’s just like we’ve been, like, loading all our wild lands with tinder.
Ayana: Is it just me or has the word "tinder" just been, like, ruined forever, and it only applies to a dating app now?
Alex: Oh does it? See, I’m too old for it to have been ruined. I still am, like ...
Ayana: I literally had to be, like, tinder? What is he talking about? Yeah, some words are just like, they’ve been co-opted.
Alex: [laughs] Exactly!
Ayana: I was not apparently in the fire enough mindset. Okay. Tinder. Original dictionary definition. I’m with you.
Alex: Yes. And in firefighting there’s a technical term for the materials that make up this tinder. They're called fuel loads because they can help fuel wildfire. They build up when you suppress a fire instead of letting it burn. And our gung-ho forest service has gotten really good at suppressing fire. We created all these fire agencies with lots of equipment, trucks, helicopters, tankers, planes. And we ran massive public awareness campaigns, all pushing this notion that fire is bad and must be stopped, campaigns like this.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Smokey Bear: A forest is many things. Shady places where you can camp.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, boy: Good places for picnics, too.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Smokey Bear: Yes.]
Ayana: It’s Smokey!
Alex: Yes. Smokey Bear!
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Smokey Bear: And a home for wildlife.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, boy: All kinds of wildlife.]
Alex: So this is a video of Smokey talking to a little boy out in the woods. Came out in 1963. There was a deer near them. There’s a squirrel popping out of a picnic basket.
Ayana: A bird steals his sandwich. It’s very cute.
Alex: But then things take a turn.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, boy: A forest is sure a lot of things.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Smokey Bear: Yes. But let a little fire get started, catch on, destroy, and your forest is nothing.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, boy: Nothing for anybody.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Smokey Bear: You have so many reasons to protect your forests. Remember only you can prevent forest fires.]
Alex: Lots of problems with that video.
Ayana: Yeah. I mean, fire is, like, painted as unequivocally evil. There's obviously no mention that fire is a natural part of ecological cycles.
Alex: Nothing about the lodgepole pine in that video.
Ayana: Oh. Our hero.
Alex: What about the lodgepole pinecones, Smokey? And, you know, Smokey’s right that you should probably be careful with flammable things in wild lands. Like, maybe skip the pyrotechnic gender reveal party, which remember how that set off the fire ...
Ayana: Hard pass for multiple reasons.
Alex: ... out in California recently? But the problem is this campaign and Smokey Bear as the spokesperson, as the spokes-bear, really helped cement this false idea in people's minds that we have to avoid fire at all costs. That fire is unnatural and must be stopped. So for decades, we've had this policy of putting out and trying to avoid all fires. And that's led to all this material building up in our wild lands, this increased fuel load, which is now fueling these huge fires. But the policy of fire exclusion is, of course, only part of the problem. There is another huge reason that fires are so bad now.
Ayana: Oh, I know where this is going.
Alex: Yes, go ahead.
Ayana: Climate change.
Alex: You got it. Here’s Bobbie again.
Bobbie Scopa: Climate change. I mean, not to get political, but our conditions are different now.
Alex: Oh Bobbie, it’s not political to say that! It's exactly in line with what science tells us.
Ayana: Alex, I’m gonna go ahead and speak for both of us when I say we are strongly pro-fact over here.
Ayana: Bring on the facts. Those are useful for making informed decisions.
Alex: And the facts out west are that it is hotter and drier, which makes fire more likely. And because of climate change, the weather starts getting hotter and drier earlier in the spring.
Alex: And it stays hotter and drier later into the fall. Which means, says Bobbie ...
Ayana: Longer fire season.
Alex: Longer fire seasons.
Bobbie Scopa: By now, the fire season is almost twice as long as it used to be up here in Washington state. In Arizona, where I used to work, we never had fires year round in Arizona, but they have fires year round now in Arizona.
Alex: And the problem with this is, of course, you know how if you put your really wet clothes in the dryer for 30 minutes, they get dry but maybe there’s still a little moisture in them?
Ayana: Mm-hmm. I’m familiar with this.
Alex: But if you put them in for an hour, they come out and they’re just, like, crispy?
Alex: That’s what’s happening out west, right? The increased periods of heat and dryness make it so that by mid-summer out west, things are even more primed to burn than they had been in years past. And all of that, the hotter, drier weather, the longer seasons, the increased fuel loads, they lead to what you had this year out west, where it feels like suddenly, everything is on fire.
Ayana: A tinderbox.
Alex: A tinderbox. Exactly. So, thoughts so far?
Ayana: I’m ready for, like, the solutions part.
Alex: Okay, so the solutions. The climate change part, that as we know is baked in for decades to come, right? Like, it is hotter and drier no matter what kinds of actions we take on climate change starting right now. It’s gonna stay that way, and our job is to keep it from getting a lot worse. So that’s baked in. But there is a pretty simple solution that exists for learning to live in this new world where fires are more likely.
Alex: And it’s a simple solution that can make those fires way less damaging. And after the break, we’re gonna hear about that simple solution and all the complicated reasons we aren’t doing it nearly enough.
Ayana: Oh, the suspense!
Alex: So, solutions!
Ayana: My favorite part!
Alex: All right, let’s bring it on. Let’s let the solutions rain down like—like ...
Ayana: Like a sweet rain at the end of a wildfire.
Alex: [laughs] Exactly. And so solution one is pretty simple. Just say no to Smokey Bear.
Ayana: Sorry, Smokey.
Alex: Sorry, Smokey. But yeah, you gotta—it’s time for you to move on.
Ayana: Take your fancy hat and beat it!
Alex: Take your fancy hat and beat it. Exactly! And in practice, what saying no to Smokey looks like is this: When wildfires break out in areas that aren't a threat to humans and our buildings, we should just let those fires burn. And the Forest Service is actually starting to do that. But not putting out fires we shouldn’t put out, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Probably the number one solution that experts will propose to avoid the kind of fire cataclysm we’re seeing out west this year ...?
Ayana: This is what I’ve been waiting for.
Alex: It’s a solution that’s thousands of years old. And Bobbie the retired firefighter says the original residents of the American West—before it was called the American West—used to practice this solution quite a bit.
Bobbie Scopa: The Native Americans called it light burning. Light burning, where they would go and burn the understory in certain areas. And it was better for their hunting. It was better for berry picking.
Alex: And the Native Americans knew it reduced the risk of large fires, by reducing these fuel loads. And here again, the Forest Service has come around. They now support light burning, in part because Native American communities out west have lobbied for decades to restore the practice. And the science was on their side. The Forest Service has given this practice a government name: They call it prescribed or controlled burning.
Ayana: So western. They’re like, let’s, like, mirror an Indigenous practice and then call it something that’s just, like, horrible.
Alex: And in the places where it’s happening, surprise, the fires aren't as damaging. Plus, there’s another advantage: It’s cheaper.
Ayana: That’s a good one.
Alex: So fighting an actual wildfire, like the kind of we're fighting out west right now, can cost over $6,000 an acre. But doing a prescribed burn costs a fraction of that. Even at the high end, a prescribed burn will cost you only $300 an acre. That's more than 20 times less.
Ayana: More effective and more cost-effective.
Alex: Exactly. And so you might ask a question.
Ayana: Why aren’t we doing this?
Alex: Why are we not doing it? Why are the fires still so bad? Well, I will tell you. Smokey Bear is harder to quit than he seems. When it comes to Smokey ...
Ayana: Well, he’s pretty charming, those pecs.
Alex: Those pecs.
Ayana: Did you see those pecs?
Alex: That gravelly spokes-bear voice? When it comes to Smokey, our heads say, "No, no, no," but our hearts still say, "Fire! Put it out! Put it out! Put it out!"
Ayana: This is so awkward. [laughs]
Alex: Even, says Bobbie, remote fires deep in the wilderness that all the science in the world says we should just let burn.
Bobbie Scopa: There's still lots of fires that still get put out in the wilderness areas, because some years the politics is such that the Forest Service does not want to be seen as not being concerned enough or not being aggressive enough to put out fires.
Alex: Got it.
Bobbie Scopa: So sometimes we are still putting fires out in the wilderness.
Alex: That we shouldn't be putting out.
Bobbie Scopa: Yeah. Well, that's in my opinion.
Alex: And you can imagine if the Forest Service gets criticized for letting remote fires burn, just imagine what happens when they suggest intentionally starting a fire on their own. Bobbie says that during her time with the Forest Service, she was a fan of doing prescribed burns, she thought they really helped. But she said lots of times when she would set one up, she would run into problems.
Bobbie Scopa: I worked in California in an area where people were so upset about the potential of me lighting off some of the brush under very controlled conditions, that they would call in and complain about my smoke to the local clean air authority, and the clean air authority would shut me down. But the ridiculous thing about that was I would get shut down before I even lit a match.
Alex: Oh my God!
Bobbie Scopa: I would get a call. So everybody—you know, it's public information. You go on the website, you submit your request. And so the public can see who's going to burn when and where. And I'd get a call. I'd have all of my resources, all of my firefighters lined up. We're doing a briefing, and I get a call from the clean air authority. "You gotta shut down your burn. People are complaining about the smoke." Said, "I haven't even started burning yet." "Well, I'm sorry. We're getting complaints, so you're gonna have to shut down." And I can tell you that we have been shut down for burning way more often than we got approvals.
Alex: That's depressing.
Bobbie Scopa: [laughs] Tell me. I was living it. It was very depressing.
Ayana: I think—so the problem is actually like, Becky calling the manager is the problem.
Alex: Right? You've got the Forest Service who's actually gotten the memo, they're trying to quit Smokey and they're trying to do the right thing. And then you've got all these people who are just sort of like, "Excuse me, I'm calling the manager on you." And a big part of the reason that people keep wanting to call the manager, it has to do with where they're living. People now live in the places where we most need to do prescribed burning. And Ayana, these places? They have a name. They’re called the WUI.
Ayana: The WUI?
Alex: The WUI.
Ayana: Is this an acronym?
Alex: It is an acronym!
Ayana: I love acronyms!
Alex: What do you think it’s an acronym for?
Ayana: I actually love this game, Like What Does the Acronym Stand For game. Wildfire Office—Western Office of Wildfire Eradication. Western Office of Wildfire Eradication.
Ayana: That would be W-O-W-E. I think I need another O, maybe? I don't know.
Alex: WOWE. Yeah, that'd be WOWE. Yeah so this WUI, this WUI?
Alex: Is W-U-I. And it’s an acronym that stands for Wildland Urban Interface.
Ayana: Interface! Yes!
Alex: So this is the Wildland Urban Interface. And what it is is communities that aren’t quite in the wilderness, but aren’t urban, or even what you’d call suburban. They're called WUIs. And WUIs are some of the fastest-growing regions in the entire country. One study found that more than 25 million people in the United States had moved into the WUI since 1990. And the problem with that is that all these people are now nestled right in amongst these ecosystems that are designed to burn. So you remember Paradise, you know, where they had that big fire that happened in 2018 in Paradise, California? Paradise, California, is in the WUI.
Alex: Santa Rosa, up in Sonoma County, that's been hit by this year’s fires, a lot of that is in the WUI.
Ayana: I mean, I get it. It’s beautiful there, right? You’re, like, really close to nature.
Alex: And that’s a big part of it. You’ve got people like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, known by their more familiar names: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. They moved to a fancy $15-million pad in Montecito, California. Which is ...
Ayana: In the WUI.
Alex: In the WUI.
Alex: But I don’t want you to think it’s all the Prince Harrys and the Dukes and Duchesses, because a lot of the people who move to the WUI are not rich. And in fact, are the opposite. They’re getting priced out of the cities.
Susie Cagle: Because all of California has become so much more expensive, and it's so much more unaffordable. And a lot of people that are moving to those places have left larger pricier, urban areas, either to, you know, to retire on fixed incomes or to start families.
Alex: So this is Susie Cagle, a journalist in California who writes a lot about climate change and fire in the West. And she told us that all these people being pushed by high housing costs into the WUI, they are a big blocker to this really good solution of prescribed burning. The more people that move to the WUI, the more people there are to complain when people like Bobbie try to do prescribed burns. But here at How to Save a Planet, we are all about action. We're not gonna just sort of sit here and say, "Well, I guess we can't do that solution. It's off the table." If someone knocks us down, Ayana, what do we do?
Ayana: Get back up?
Alex: Yes, exactly. Get back up.
Ayana: This feels like a trick question. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again?
Alex: Right, exactly. We get back up. And if there is a blocker to a very simple solution ...
Ayana: Remove the blocker.
Alex: Right. And we actually have to do this pretty quickly because, due to climate change, prescribed burns are actually getting trickier to do safely. Some years for example, the weather is so hot and dry we can't even do a prescribed burn. We couldn't do a prescribed burn even if people weren't calling the authorities to complain. And so in the years when the conditions are right, we need to do as many burns as possible. So we have to figure out a solution to this blocker. And there is a solution to the blocker.
Susie Cagle: So if we really zoom out and look at California at large or the West at large, what it would really look like to get this right is to create housing that people can afford in other places.
Alex: We have to make housing more affordable, so people aren't forced into the WUI. And the way we do that, Ayana, the way we make housing more affordable, it's a solution that I know is near and dear to your heart: Better zoning laws.
Ayana: Ooh! Yeah, very near to my heart. I had a career in ocean zoning for half a decade. Like, this is my jam. I am pro zoning.
Alex: So I think you and I would agree that a lot of the very screwed up things that exist in society can often be traced back to really bad zoning laws. For me it's, like, stuff like food deserts, achievement gaps.
Ayana: Lack of green space.
Alex: A lot of institutional racism is enforced through zoning laws.
Ayana: Building heights.
Alex: Exactly. And bad zoning, it turns out, is also hurting our ability to fight fires. And here’s how that works. A lot of neighborhoods in California are prohibited by law from building multi-unit buildings. Or even just like duplexes. Like, you can only build single-family residences in a lot of areas of California. And because there's a small supply of housing units, that means the price goes up. And so people have to go further and further into the WUI just to find an affordable place to live when, if we had better zoning laws, they could just be living on the second floor of a duplex in San Mateo. But some communities in San Mateo won’t let them do that. So that’s the one thing we have to do is get the zoning right, so that we can actually create more affordable housing.
Alex: Where people want to live first so they don’t have to go to the WUI. And so Susie says the first part of the solution, make more affordable housing so people don’t have to go to the WUI in the first place. The second part of this solution is to make it easier for people who are in the WUI to leave it if they want to. We have to make it easier for people to do a thing that I know you’re heard of, Ayana, because I think you actually told me about the term. We have to make it easier for people to do managed retreat.
Ayana: Ah, yeah. It's not a word I've heard used in the context of fire, only more so for sea-level rise. But of course, it makes sense to use it here too.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. They talk about it a lot with coastal communities where storms are going to become more damaging. And so the same principle applies to communities that are gonna burn more frequently, right? And the problem here is sort of the same as on the coast, which is how do you present this idea to people? If the idea is, once your house burns down, maybe you shouldn’t rebuild it in the place where it’s probably gonna burn down again.
Alex: But it’s really hard to tell people that in that moment.
Susie Cagle: Because when a community burns down is when people are most traumatized, they're most desperate to get back into their houses, to rebuild as quickly as possible, when local leaders and politicians and regulators want to make all of that happen as fast as possible so they can maintain their tax base. And when this was made most clear to me was in Santa Rosa. A large part of Santa Rosa in the Northern San Francisco Bay area burned down in 2017, October of 2017. And the city made it easy as possible for people to rebuild.
Susie Cagle: They really fast-tracked all the permits. They wanted everyone to stay. And a few county politicians said, you know, maybe we should be rethinking this. Maybe we shouldn't allow housing over there, maybe we should change some requirements. And they were totally shut down. And someone whose house burned down told me you'll see a very, very deep blue county get very, very libertarian if you start talking about managed retreat.
Susie Cagle: So we even—we squander all of those opportunities year after year after year, when we could be making better decisions. But making better decisions would require taking a little bit of time and thinking not just how should we rebuild, or maybe should we be rebuilding some of these places at all?
Alex: And in fact, Santa Rosa this very year is burning again, just a couple years after all those houses got rebuilt from the 2017 fire, they’re in danger of burning down again.
Ayana: Yeah. Oof! I get it, though. It’s so hard, right? Like, you feel—you feel connected to a place, you feel—I mean, yeah, no one wants to be told what to do. No one wants to be told, like, you’re not in the right zone anymore. It’s super tough. I definitely have a lot of sympathy for people in this position. But still, we can't keep rebuilding in places that are gonna keep burning down.
Alex: Exactly. So what is the solution to this one, the managed retreat problem? Well, there’s a whole bunch of sort of boring-ish policy things that would make ...
Ayana: Me happy.
Alex: ... all the things that we have to do a lot easier. Yes, exactly.
Ayana: Bring on the boring policy solutions that are extremely effective that no one ever wants to read or talk about. I’m here for it.
Alex: Well, I will see your desire for wonky solutions, and raise you one of the solutions out there: Insurance.
Ayana: Ah, yeah. That's pretty sexy.
Alex: [laughs] Insurance. The problem with some insurance is that a lot of the time, if your house burns down and you have an insurance policy, chances are the insurance will only pay you out on the policy if you rebuild on the same plot. So if your house burned down and you wanted to do a voluntary managed retreat, you maybe wouldn't get your insurance money, or maybe not all of it at least.
Ayana: The incentives are all wrong.
Alex: Yeah. And so there's a bunch of things like that. These small rule changes that could make ultimately a really big difference. Like zoning changes that could increase housing affordability. Building codes that would recognize the reality of fire. Evacuation plans that wouldn't lead to bottlenecks like we saw in the Paradise fire, that sort of thing. But there's this whole other bucket of things you can do as an individual, especially if you live in the WUI. So do you remember our Black Lives Matter for the Climate episode, where we talked to Colette Pichon Battle?
Ayana: Boy, do I ever!
Alex: She went back to her family's home in Louisiana that was built decades earlier by her grandfather. And even after hurricane Katrina, it was still standing. Remember she said this.
Colette Pichon Battle: The house is still standing, because my grandfather is a G, that's why. That's right. That was when carpentry was a skill. Interestingly enough, these men made houses so the water would flow underneath it, believe it or not. They live with water. Turns out these bayou people know what they're doing.
Alex: And if we are gonna live in the WUI, you need that same mentality for fire.
Ayana: Ah, live with fire.
Alex: It is not, "If it happens," but "When." And you need to be prepared. And there are lots of very basic common-sense things you can do to prepare your home for fire, just like Colette’s grandfather prepared for water. It turns out, a lot of what causes the houses to burn down are things that we’ve done ourselves. Again, here’s Susie Cagle.
Susie Cagle: It's your gutters full of dry leaves. It's little stuff. It's your—you left the propane barbecue next to the house or the big flammable patio umbrella.
Alex: So there's lots of simple things like that. Don't put your propane grill next to your house. And while we’re at it, a lot of houses in the WUI still have wood-shingled roofs. You might want to think about getting rid of those. One other tip we learned: Don’t let a eucalyptus tree anywhere near your home. Those things are like living matchsticks. Same is true for lots of ornamental things that people like to plant around their houses. And then you should think, is there a path that you could put around your house that would serve as a firebreak? Are there places without vegetation that the fire will stop at the perimeter of your home? Because when the fire comes, it's gonna be too late to dig one.
Ayana: So we have some simple solutions: Ending fire suppression, returning to the Indigenous practice of prescribed burning, and managing your own property more carefully. But right now, there are a lot of complicated blockers standing in the way of those solutions.
Alex: Blockers that have to do with people and government and mis-aligned incentives. And of course, messed up zoning laws. But we are not cowed by that complexity.
Ayana: You're not? I kind of am. This seems really hard.
Alex: No, but we have some specific action items.
Ayana: We do. So as always, we have some specific items where you can help with the solutions we talked about in this episode. If you're interested in learning more about the range of small zoning-type solutions to reduce pressures driving people to the WUI, and ways to make managed retreat a more palatable option, check out fireadaptednetwork.org, where you can keep track of all these little policy changes that would actually help make a big difference. And we'll put that link in our show notes as always. That site also has information on how to do a controlled burn on your own property if you own a bunch of land.
Alex: And continuing on the theme of what you can do as an individual, if you live in the WUI and you want to make yourself and your home safe from fire, Cal Fire has a great resource called readyforwildfire.org. That's readyforwildfire.org. We will also throw a link to that in our show notes.
Ayana: Hey, that Ready For Wildfire, they've got an app, even.
Alex: Oh, really?
Ayana: To create your custom wildfire preparedness action plan. That seems super useful. You can sign up and they'll text you when there's wildfires near you. This is very handy.
Ayana: Cal Fire? way to go.
Alex: Very handy.
Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It’s hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram @how2saveaplanet with the number 2. Or you can email us at email@example.com.
Ayana: This episode was reported and produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our other reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger, with additional music by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson. Our fact checker this episode is Sarah Craig.
Ayana: And a special thanks to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.