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Politics & Government

What Policymakers Are Trying To Do About Wildfires As They Become More Destructive


To talk more about why fires are getting bigger and more destructive and what policymakers might do about this, we called Michael Wara, who focuses on climate and energy policy at Stanford University. Welcome.

MICHAEL WARA: Thanks for having me on, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Is it possible to identify why wildfires are becoming more frequent and more intense?

WARA: Well, yes. I think there are a number of causes that are together causing the catastrophes that we're seeing. One is climate change. Climate change is making summers warmer and longer. We're seeing dry period extend further into the fall when conditions are most risky.

In addition, development in California over the last several decades has really encroached into the most dangerous areas. And so we have more people living in places that are potentially dangerous. And we have climate and weather creating more danger, and I think the two come together. And we see things like Paradise this week or what happened in Santa Rosa last year.

SHAPIRO: When policymakers look at steps they can take to address this, obviously addressing climate change is important, but maybe not immediate. Are there things that you think can be done now today that could make a difference in how fires like this play out in the future?

WARA: Absolutely. One of the things that California has begun the process of really rethinking and redoubling efforts on is controlling the amount of flammable material that's in the places where people live. Right? So people are probably familiar on the program with controlled burns, the idea of kind of reducing fuels in forests. The big problem in California is that, but also how much flammable material, how much defensible space is there in the town.

The other thing, though, to think about it, as in the case of the Camp Fire, in many of the fires that occurred last year in Napa and Sonoma, is the risk of utility lines causing fires. And the utilities in California have spent a lot of time and energy trying to reduce risk this year. Clearly, that's inadequate. And I think that we need to kind of think outside the box about what solutions might look like.

SHAPIRO: When you talk about reducing the amount of flammable material in the town, people like living among trees and feeling like they're in the forest. Are you saying that's just not something people can continue to do in the future?

WARA: I think the relationship that communities have with their forest has to change because the reality is the trajectory of climate change, it is - suggests this problem is not going to get better. It's going to get worse. And that's even if California and eventually the United States and eventually the planet really engage on the problem of reducing emissions.

SHAPIRO: You're saying as bad as these record-setting fires are, there will be new records set year by year?

WARA: I think that's right. And the key is going to be learning to live in that new climate in a way that's safe, safe for people and safe for communities, so that we don't see happening what happened over the past 10 days.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that the people who make the laws in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C., are willing to make the necessary tough decisions to kind of put policies in place to prevent fires this severe from happening in the future?

WARA: California doesn't have a choice. We have to. We cannot afford as a state to lose entire communities every year in the fall. The state doesn't have the money. The state doesn't have the additional housing capacity to absorb all of these people that have been displaced. And the electric utilities in the state don't have a future as businesses if these kinds of disasters continue.

And so it's just something we have to do as a state. Legislators are most likely to take decisive action when they simply cannot avoid it. And I think we are in a situation like that when it comes to wildfires in California.

SHAPIRO: Michael Wara, thanks so much for joining us today.

WARA: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me on, Ari.

SHAPIRO: He's a research scholar at Stanford University.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.