When Paradise became hell: The story of the Camp Fire in Northern California
It would cost nearly $30 billion to rebuild the tens of thousands of homes that are most vulnerable to wildfires in the Sacramento metropolitan area, a projection that ranks California’s capital region fourth highest in the nation for wildfire risk, according to a recent report by a real estate analytics firm.
Nearly 650,000 California residences total are considered to be at “high” or “extreme” wildfire risk, with just over 68,000 of them located in the four-county Sacramento metropolitan area, according to an analysis released this week by data consultancy CoreLogic.
While the capital city itself is not at high risk of burning, many of the most vulnerable single- and multi-family residences lie in the farther reaches of El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties.
CoreLogic’s 2019 wildfire risk report looked at California and 12 other states in the contiguous United States where wildfires are prevalent: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The four most at-risk metro areas among those states were all in California, followed by Austin at No. 5.
Risk level is quantified in the report in terms of estimated reconstruction costs of residences threatened by wildfires. By that measure, the Los Angeles metropolitan area faces by far the greatest level of wildfire risk, according to CoreLogic: an estimated $71 billion to reconstruct 121,589 residential properties considered to be at high or extreme wildfire risk.
The L.A. area is followed by Riverside, at $40.94 billion to reconstruct highest risk residences, then San Diego ($35.81 billion) and Sacramento ($27.5 billion).
“The primary driver of wildfire-related damage and destruction is the geographic relationship between property development and existing high-risk wildfire fuels,” CoreLogic’s report explains. “When development and fuels intermix or where they are adjacent to each other, there is always going to be a threat of destruction to property and consequently loss of life.”
Thanks to its geographic size and population, and in light of devastating, record-setting wildfires in 2017 and 2018, California housed nine of the 15 most at-risk metropolitan areas listed. In addition to the four listed above, the San Francisco (No. 6, $16.32 billion), Truckee (No. 8, $10.85 billion), Oxnard (No. 9, $10.17 billion), Redding (No. 13, $6.44 billion) and Salinas (No. 14, $6.39 billion) metropolitan areas all face substantial financial loss in the event of a large wildfire.
At the statewide level, CoreLogic says 405,715 residences in California are considered at high wildfire risk and 240,580 are at extreme risk, representing a total reconstruction value of over $281 billion. Due to California’s high housing costs, that value is nearly quadruple that of the next closest state, Texas. CoreLogic found 195,366 high-risk residences and 174,038 residences at extreme risk in Texas, but only a total reconstruction cost of just over $75 billion.
In April, McClatchy published its own findings on California’s wildfire risk as part of a series titled “Destined to Burn.” That analysis determined that more than 350,000 Californians live in towns or cities almost entirely within “very high fire hazard severity zones,” Cal Fire’s designation for places highly vulnerable to devastating wildfires.
Destined to Burn included profiles of 10 of California’s most wildfire-vulnerable communities, detailing the unique threats they face. Two of them were located in Sacramento’s four-county metropolitan area: Pollock Pines, in El Dorado County, and Colfax, in Placer County.
The CoreLogic report defines four factors contributing to wildfire risk: fuel, fire history, aspect and slope. “Aspect” refers to the cardinal direction of sloped terrain; the report notes that “(s)outhern slopes tend to hold less moisture than northern facing slopes, and this can lead to increased fire intensity and easier ignitions.
The report then assigns a risk score for the residential properties within the designated regions.
The report bases its reconstruction values on “the cost to rebuild the home in the event of a total loss ... not to be confused with property market values or new construction cost estimation.”
“As unfortunate as it sounds, there are other communities similar to Paradise where fuels are present and homes are at risk,” CoreLogic’s report concludes. “It only requires the right weather conditions and an errant spark to create the next unwanted record.”