Regulating the Flood-Prone Compared to the Wildfire-Prone

new york after sandy

Given our discussions of people who build in fire prone areas, I thought it was interesting to compare to a blog post about building in flood prone areas. The post is by Stéphane Hallegatte, Senior Economist, Sustainable Development Network, Office of the Chief Economist, The World Bank, and is on Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog here.

Here’s a quote:

There are limits to what coastal defenses and land regulations can achieve. Some like the idea that we build in risky areas because of “wrong incentives”, namely flood insurance subsidies through the National Flood Insurance Program. According to them, removing these incentives would solve the problem.

“Wrong incentives” exist and play a role – this is obvious – but unfortunately they cannot explain the current trend in risk exposure alone. Flood losses are on the rise in almost all countries, including those that have no flood insurance system (5). And if insurance claims help pay for rebuilding, they cannot compensate for all the losses. Getting flooded is a tragedy, with or without insurance.

People move toward risky areas because this is where better jobs and higher incomes are. And they are there because growing sectors are in coastal areas – driven by harbors and global trade – and in cities – that are usually located next to rivers and coasts and thus in flood prone areas. Would financial sector professionals quit their high-wage jobs in Manhattan in the absence of flood insurance? Would their employers move their headquarters to the Great Plains? Would the beach club owner in New Jersey move her business two miles inside the country?

Better land regulations may be able to decrease flood exposure, but they cannot do so in a significant manner – in the absence of a large-scale buys-out and house destruction program that appears extremely unlikely (6).

Flood exposure will not disappear anytime soon, even if land regulations are improved and bad incentives are removed.

Clearly, people don’t move to the rural interior West for better jobs and higher incomes. Still, people tend to move or agglomerate places that are beautiful and/or near coasts. And whether low or high density, the more people, there is likely to be more potential insurance payout required. Not to speak of the tornado prone, or the earthquake prone.

8 thoughts on “Regulating the Flood-Prone Compared to the Wildfire-Prone”

  1. I made up a new word that describes the practice of blaming disaster survivors, because of where they live —–> “Placism”.

    This is especially so in catastrophic wildfires. Yes, some people do build their homes in a place where fire will funnel uphill but, others merely live adjacent to National Forest lands. They live where they live and the WUI should be extended to cover an ample managed buffer between human communities and dry, overcrowded and unhealthy forests.

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    • Larry, I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it goes also goes back to a fundamental question of ” to what extent should homeowners, compared to others, pay for protection and rebuilding when disasters hit” (once I worked on a coastal zoning bill, which was about that) so part of it is about “who is going to pay?” more than a generic principle.

      So for example, I think the highest and best use of the San Francisco Bay Area is to remove the housing and restore wetlands. I resent the tax part of having to pay to build public infrastructure back after earthquakes. Nevertheless, practically speaking, my ideas won’t hold. So I am also interested in comparing the equity across urban vs. rural funding for repair, and who gets blamed for living places, and who doesn’t.

      Finally I think there is a great fundamental principle in land management that “it’s easier to stop something before it starts.” So I agree that local communities working with insurance companies and landowners is the way to go. But there would also be means tests for those asking in any way, for public funds, if I were Queen of the Universe.

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  2. Larry, your almost fierce desire to “manage up” and “restore” most of the forests is getting out of hand. How far, how many miles, how many watersheds, how many counties will you encompass in your WUI boundaries to protect these poor homeowners along the fringe?
    Frankly, I am finding it difficult to ignore the obvious, that you have (or still do) made a living doing the restoration and thinning work you so strongly advocate. So, in my opinion, your opinions on this topic are tainted, and not objective.
    I have declined to say the obvious for months as I follow these issues on this site, but can’t stay silent when you post such foolishness as this idea of an unending WUI.
    I respect your experience and observations doing the actual work, but because you live by thinning doesn’t mean that the thinning (restoration?) is necessarily good or needed or desirable or economically justified.

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    • I simply do not feel that 150 feet, or even 2 miles, is enough of a buffer to keep the public safe and protected from catastrophic wildfires. I ask you, Ed, do YOU want bark beetles and snags overrunning YOUR community?!?!? Do YOU want a view of dead trees for as far as you can see out your front window?!? I sure don’t, and many other rural residents don’t either. I resent people forcing such impacts on us, as if we need more. You appear to think that we want 100% managed forests when, in fact, that is impossible. However, such small WUI’s are grossly inadequate to protect our communities and our scenic forest values. Again, your own analysis of my words is severely flawed, and I have to question your reading comprehension. If your view of my words taints me, then your view is also tainted, and not at all based in the reality of my words. NEVER did I say entire counties needed an “unending WUI”. You are filling in the blanks of your own flawed reading comprehension. NEVER did I say that ALL public lands needs to be managed. You simply are attacking my middle-of-the-road point of view, which appears to be quite palatable to other rural residents. Yes, we ARE getting kudos from eco-groups, who see the actual cutting units, as marked following the project specifications. In fact, one of them would like to see us cut MORE but, that goes against established rules, laws and policies. Just because maybe your local forest has a different idea of “thinning” or “restoration”, that doesn’t make our projects bad. I have described our project in great detail but, you appear to disregard the specifics.

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      • So Larry, how wide a WUI are you thinking we need? Or are you thinking more landscape-y with thinned exit routes and defined fire breaks across the landscape?

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  3. No, Larry, you never asked for an “unending WUI, but your previous comment implied a need for much larger WUI areas than many experts recommend for protection of adjoining communities.
    Of course the scenic aspect of a dead forest or a burned forest does not appeal to me or most people, but we are talking here about damage from fire, not the aesthetics of an adjoining forest slope.
    And as far as beetles are concerned, I am not aware that there is any proven method of thinning or other treatment that will stop the beetle infestation. Once these buggers are in a stand, it is up to chance and natural limitations to end it. If you have other science on this (for northern inland forests), I would be glad to listen.
    I am responding from the local WUI situation where, as I have mentioned here numerous times, the locals extended the boundary several miles upslope to a major watershed divide. In my opinion, this designation had nothing to do with fire prevention, it was an attempt to get more “management” of the forest. And therefore more logs for the mills.
    I only know that almost every response you make on any and all topics on this site result in a suggestion or recommendation for thinning of some sort. Seems to be your universal “cure-all” for most national forest problems. Forest management is more complicated than that.
    I am sure the marking and thinning work you and your crew do is top-notch; there is no intent by me to challenge your field or silvicultural knowledge or abilities. I just think that the whole “restoration” focus these past few years has been kidnapped by a fear of fire, real risks or imagined risks.
    And many of the prescriptions and photos I see here of thinning and/or restoration work is on rather gentle and drier slopes and watersheds than dominate much of Region One. What works in eastern Oregon, or eastern Calif. or the SW may not fit or be economically feasible in much of the northern Rockies.

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    • Sorry but, aesthetics and the creation of perfect bark beetle habitat is definitely NOT desirable. I have seen it happen MANY times, where communities were barely saved from wildfires, only to have clouds of bark beetles infest the millions of dead and dying trees, so very, very close (within 150 feet, as “experts” recommend). Sorry but, those “experts” care nothing for the preservation of the values and benefits of living in the forest. Just how many people re-build their burned homes, when there are no longer any live trees left??

      Once again, my version of restoration includes a more natural species composition, a more natural stocking level, and greater resilience to drought, insects and wildfires. Pretending that today’s wildfires are “natural and beneficial” is like burying your head in the sand.

      I have worked in many National Forests, in many Regions. I do not deny that there still are folks around who have other motives for logging. Thinning “from below”, and adding a minimum amount of commercially-valuable trees can accomplish much more than simple safety. Thinning projects can have multiple benefits over a wide spectrum of issues. Saving endangered species habitats from catastrophic wildfires is one of those benefits, as well as fire safety, forest health, scenic protections and rural jobs. It is not simply about the issue of community safety. All the other issues MUST be factored in to judge the true purpose, need and effectiveness.

      Yes, I have worked on the Bitterroot NF, and seen the fire damages and bark beetle problems. Much of the land is very steep, and somewhat at-risk to erosion. Much of the Forest is at-risk to incredible re-burn potential, as well. I truly believe that more management would have mitigated some of the impacts currently troubling the Forest. What happens when the high elevation mortality in the “potential lynx habitat” re-burns? What will happen to the wildlife when those 95% dead stands burn again? I tend to think we could have done SOMETHING to avoid this now moot point.

      Reply

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