From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, wildfires are ravaging the West with California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado all facing record fire seasons.
My colleague Chris Favelle on the cycle of building and rebuilding that is making the annual fires so destructive.
It's Friday, September 11th. On.
Let's go come on to the finals here. The fires this year really got bad, starting in mid-August with a series of lightning strikes, nearly 11000 lightning strikes setting off hundreds of fires, you had already dry conditions. So those fires just spread. These fires stretched the length of the state quickly became out of control. The governor of California declaring a state of emergency tonight trapped this fire on all sides all around us. All the roads are blocked right now.
There's more than two and a half million acres burned in California alone. It was like the entire wall of the forest was just coming at us down the road. I looked up at the back of my house, was on fire, and it spread beyond California. Right now, we've got big fires in Oregon and Washington, burning injuries to make out. More than 14000 firefighters are fighting.
This blaze is more than five hundred and sixty homes destroyed here and is threatening 5000 more. At least five fatalities. People kill 10 year old boy killed while fleeing with his family from a fire in Washington state. The governor there saying this could be the worst loss of life and property in state history.
Do you see what California looks like right now? When I talk to people in California who are dealing with this, they always describe the color. You can see the red hue, the red orange glow in the sky. It's apocalyptic. Ominous, ominous and bleak. There's a strong note of fear and also all in their voice. It's raining and it's really raining. But I mean, we can't even read anything to remember is we are not yet in the peak of wildfire season.
I talked to a county fire chief yesterday and he said he is looking at months more of this until the rains come. Look at this.
Let the world know what's going on in California, may we burn it down? Chris, the scenes you're describing sound horrific and what feels particularly awful is that every year seems to bring another set of devastating wildfires and they keep getting worse and worse.
And I think the question everyone has at this point is why if we know that these fires are coming, do we see such extreme destruction year after year, fire season after fire season?
So there's a few things, certainly the main theme here is climate change, right? Climate change is making the conditions worse. It's drier. There are more dead trees. The temperatures are higher. There's no getting away from the role of climate change. But it's important to note, it's not just climate change. Did a big change is the number of homes being built in this area this exposed, vulnerable part of the state? Experts have a term for it.
They call it the wildland urban interface or the WUI. And what that means is simply the place where development meets wild vegetation. That can be forests, it can be grassland areas where you're going to have wildfires. And that housing development keeps on increasing in those areas. So you get more fires, but you also have more homes that are burning in those fires because there's more homes to begin with in those areas.
So so when we think of this movie you're describing where it feels like nature and man kind of meat. Yeah, it's extremely likely to catch fire over and over again.
So why are people moving to such land? Yeah, it's a few reasons and they all are happening together if we go back a few decades. California has always grown at a fast rate. But what's really accelerated is housing pressure in urban areas. The cost of a home in San Francisco or Los Angeles keeps on going up. The tech boom, in particular in the Bay Area accelerated that further. And there's more to it than that, right? The states getting involved, the state is saying, understandably, we've got a huge homelessness problem, masonite affordability problem.
They're looking increasingly aggressively to find new ways to deal with that. And one thing they're doing is putting more pressure on local governments out in the regions to say we want you to increase your housing stock and there's economic incentives. If local governments don't build enough housing, they can lose state funding. So all the incentives line up towards more and more housing. And that pressure is increasing over time as the housing crisis gets worse.
So the state government in places like California is actually going to punish a town in the WUI in a place that's highly flammable if they're not expanding the amount of housing, for all the reasons you just explained, which is that California needs more housing, more affordable housing.
Yeah. And when you talk to local officials, they'll cite that. They'll say, look, we might know what the risk is, but we're getting pressure from the state. We can't stop doing this. We've got to build houses somewhere. And the easiest place to build houses is out here in open land that's never been developed. So that's where the pressure winds up. So because of all these forces, people and towns, like a lot of people are suddenly living right in the middle of where the fires are going to be burning.
Exactly, and it's now dovetailing with this second overarching trend of climate change, so just that you've got people flooding these areas, you also have increasingly severe fires and they're overlapping and they're both getting worse.
A great example of this is Sonoma County, which some people call wine country, it's just a little bit north and inland from the Bay Area, beautiful countryside, but it's populating quickly. If you go back to nineteen sixty four, there was a big fire called the Hanle Fire in Sonoma County destroyed fewer than one hundred homes. So not a massive impact. Why that fire matters is because in twenty seventeen, the tub's fire hit roughly the same area as the Hemley fire.
But this time it destroyed more than five thousand homes. Wow. What was different, of course, was the fire. The fire was basically the same landscape burning. What was different, of course, was the massive wave of development between those two fires. Right. And this is important because after the tub's fire, Sonoma County had a moment to sit back and say, what should we do differently? We know these fires will keep on hitting. Should we rebuild differently?
Should we change our standards? Should we not rebuild? And when I spoke with officials in twenty eighteen, they had a very clear position, which was, yes, we know this will burn again. There's no question no one disputes that. What they said, though, was it's not our place to tell people not to rebuild because no one is not fair. No to where does that go? If we don't rebuild, we'll lose our tax base.
We'll lose our population. So they rebuilt and they're still rebuilding.
I mean, that is a real head scratcher, because I would imagine the moment after a big fire and definitely after two major fires would be exactly the time to reevaluate everything, to either not rebuild at all or rebuild in a very specific, precautionary way. My sense from reporting this for several years is that this is the moment right after a fire where you see officials saying maybe we should try something different, but then a very predictable cycle starts. And that's when officials realize that the economic incentives all point towards rebuilding.
Remember these towns, these counties, so much of their budget and their revenue comes from property taxes. If you don't rebuild your houses, you don't get the revenue back. You can't pay for your schools, your garbage collection, your police, your fire departments. All that stuff depends on a healthy, growing and repaired housing market.
So right away, all the money incentives say build back, but why not line up a back better and smarter? Well, then you get the second part. The second part is the emotion. The emotion of this is so raw, especially primarily for the homeowners who lose their houses in these fires. All of a sudden they're living with relatives. They're in a motel somewhere. They're maybe in an RV that they parked in front of their burned out house.
And they're saying they're to get me back into my house as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
Don't put new requirements on me.
Don't make me change the way my roof is built or the way my my road is structured. Just let me do this the way it was. And right now. And that kind of pressure is really hard for politicians, both politically, because it's a tough on your career if you're the guy who said no to a family that just got burned out. But even as a human right, if you get this family standing in front of you and they've lost everything, you want to make their life as easy as possible.
So it turns out that this moment after a fire is actually the worst moment to really rethink how and where we build. And you see that on the ground over and over again. These rebuilding efforts start pretty fast and they tend to produce homes that look a whole lot like the homes that burned down before.
And so all the reasons not to rebuild, which seem manifold, get swamped by these financial forces and these emotional forces and I guess on some level is kind of deeply American spirit of rebuild. You must rebuild. I mean, you can think of every natural disaster over the last half century and there is a mayor or a governor or a president who swoops in and says our first priority is to rebuild. It's this profoundly deep seated instinct. It's exactly right.
It's almost muscle memory. Right. There's been so many horrible events in this country.
Take your period of time. There's almost a script to follow. And that script says we will rebuild because not rebuilding would mean surrendering and giving up on our community and on voters and our families. And no one wants to be the person who does that.
And this, it sounds like, is what happens in Sonoma after that. Twenty seventeen fire the tub's fire. That's right.
And for all these reasons, Sonoma County keeps burning in twenty nineteen. The county got hit again by the Kincade fire, which. Earned seventy seven thousand acres or was the biggest fire in California that year, and then last month the Walbridge fire, part of the giant new lightning compas fire, again hit Sonoma County, burning fifty five thousand acres. It's just recently been brought under control. No one thinks that the problem is over, though, because it's only early September and there's probably more fires to come.
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Chris, it feels like eventually something has to give here that some pillar of this self-perpetuating, very dangerous cycle of the WUI being built on and catching fire as it is basically designed to do, that this this has to come to an end. And I wonder what you expect that it will be that will break this cycle. Yeah.
And what's interesting here is it doesn't look like it'll be the government and it doesn't even look like it's going to be individual homeowners. It looks like, if anything, it'll be the insurance industry. And here's why. The people who pay the cost most immediately when these fires hit is first homeowners, but then insurance companies. And in the massive fires of twenty, seventeen, twenty eighteen, they paid out so much money that it wiped out what was said to be a quarter century worth of profits.
And insurers responded by saying, we've got to figure out what we can do differently. We don't want to have these massive claims, these huge losses. Again, we can't afford it. What can we do? And what they did was they started dropping customers. They started sending homeowners letters at the end of their one year contract saying, you're in a wildfire zone, we are not going to renew your contract. So people in the WUI started saying, I can't get insurance.
And the fear that that sparked was immense. And they went to the state. They said, what can you do? And so last year, California acted. The state imposed a one year ban on insurance companies dropping homeowners in these areas hit by wildfires. And it was sort of the nuclear option. They'd never done it before. It was a big a bit of a Hail Mary.
So just so I understand this, last year, the state of California said that insurance companies dropping coverage for houses in the U.S. they're likely to keep burning would be such a catastrophe that they're going to stop insurance companies from dropping homeowner's policy. They're going to basically block them from doing it. Exactly. And it was meant to be a bit of a Band-Aid. What they didn't do is really say what happens next. And so we're now going into the end of this year, which will be really uncharted territory.
No one knows if insurers will en masse pull out of these areas at the end of this one year ban. And when I talk to insurance groups, they say what they've been looking at to figure out what they'll do next is the fires. They're trying to get a handle on what kinds of losses they're facing from this year's fires. And if it's another big year of losses like 17 and 18, that's going to be one more really compelling reason for them to keep on fleeing these areas.
So because what would it look like if in three months, four months, six months, people don't have insurance in California in these wildfire zones and their houses burned down?
So for now, if you can't get private insurance, you can get insurance through a high risk pool. The state run, that's very expensive. It's not very good coverage. It doesn't cover many things. The real nightmare scenario down the road is that eventually you can't get insurance anywhere. And the problem with that is a few things. Number one, if your home burns, you can't rebuild it unless you're wealthy. You can't pay out of pocket to rebuild their home from scratch.
But probably even more concerning, you probably can't sell that home a home that is effectively uninsurable. No one's going to buy. And so the housing market collapses, your home value collapses. And these entire communities in these WUI areas, they become undesirable, unprofitable, and they ultimately die. And the whole conversation now is how do we avoid that kind of economic death for these communities and what's a fair way of getting there?
Are there people who think and I know this may sound. A little bit heartless, and I don't mean for it to be, but are there people who think that as horrible as this sounds, insurance companies basically pulling out the rug from underneath people, that it's the kind of shock to the system that really would break this cycle? There are people who see it that way. They tend not to be people who live in California. The vibe I get from my sources in California is they don't want this to be the solution because it's so it's so heartless.
It's so harsh. It's so unbending, the people who already live in these areas. So I think everyone agrees that you want to find a way to protect people. And the goal is to not have the insurance industry be the bad guy, but to have some sort of public policy goal or outcome that isn't as harsh.
Because, of course, if I'm a homeowner in California, I would be absolutely furious to hear that insurance companies are dropping me and the government is letting that happen, because as you explained earlier, the government allowed me to build this home in the U.S., in fact, in some cases encouraged it because of the housing crunch in California.
And now the government is standing by. As I lose my ability to insure my house. And if there's a fire, I will almost assuredly not be able to afford to rebuild it. Without that insurance, I may go bankrupt.
But if the government does step in and I guess backstops the insurance companies, it requires them to insure, then they're perpetuating this cycle all over again. And so this is like the definition of a pick your poison messy situation. That's exactly the dilemma.
There's nothing governments can do that seems like a good idea right now. They can bend to pressure to protect homeowners and make sure insurance is still available and affordable, even if that means you keep on encouraging home construction in these areas. Or they could, in theory, let the market take its course and let this risk that is growing price out more people so they can't afford to these areas. But there's no political appetite to do that. It's too harsh.
And the result is the problem continues. You have more building, you have more fires, you have more damage, you have more deaths. And no one can articulate a good way out of it.
I wonder if what you're describing is going to be more or less be the story, not just of California and of wildfires, but for homeowners across the country where climate change in all its forms makes life unlivable? Right. So flooding in Florida or stronger tornadoes in the Midwest and ultimately its insurance companies who get fed up and pull out and make people leave places that we now think of is almost uninhabitable because of the changes in our climate. And that's exactly the shift that you're seeing among experts.
Experts are saying we can't keep rebuilding. We've got to shift towards moving people away from these areas. But it is just a gargantuan shift in mindset that you're describing. And the opposition to that idea is so great that we're only beginning to talk about it and only beginning to have some pilot programs where a few communities start to look at moving, but that is much smaller than the growth in these areas, wildfires, flooding, hurricane. So for now, it's more of an idea and just the beginning of a movement.
But I think you're right, as the damage to climate change increases, the only real alternative to endlessly subsidising insurance and rebuilding is you say people have to move and we're not there yet, but it seems like we're gradually creeping in that direction.
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Visit beauty cannot accomplish daily for 10 percent off your first order. Here's what else you need to know. Congress has spent months talking about whether to give the American people more relief as they continue grappling with this pandemic. Today, we're going to vote. Today, we're going to vote on Thursday.
Senate Republicans failed to pass a limited economic relief bill amid opposition from Democrats who called the measure inadequate.
The truth is, this emaciated bill is not a serious attempt at legislation or solving the real problems in our country.
It's a shame many of the financial benefits approved by Congress in March with the passage of the Keres Act have now run out. But the Times reports that there's little chance that Congress will enact a new round of relief before the November election.
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