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Reshaping wildfire policy in the West

Wildfire risk is an ever-present concern in the American West. A legal scholar and wildfire policy expert talks about how a recent Sustainability Accelerator grant helped a multidisciplinary team advance policy change in California.

Michael Wara

Michael Wara is a legal scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment and also senior director of policy for the Sustainability Accelerator who develops innovative climate and energy policies focused on wildfire risk mitigation. He and a team of researchers from across Stanford – including Chris FieldMarshall BurkeMichael Mastrandrea, Deborah Sivas, and Stefan Wager – won a 2022 Sustainability Accelerator seed grant to explore policy options, such as prescribed burning, in the wake of recent devastating wildfires across the American West. We caught up with Wara recently to hear what progress the team has made toward the important goals of reducing wildfire risk.

Can you describe the societal challenge the team is working to address?

There is an epidemic of catastrophic wildfires in the Western United States. They are devastating for communities. They are a major public health burden from smoke and air pollution. They are destroying ecosystems. But a solution is not simple. In California, a state with 40 million people, there’s going to be lots of unintentional ignitions. This fact was really driven home for me when I was on the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery in 2019. We held a hearing in Redding, a city that had just been devastated by a wildfire that came to be known as the “Camp Fire.” Eighty-five people perished. An entire neighborhood was completely incinerated outside of Redding. Two thousand homes were destroyed. All by a fire started by a spark from a flat tire on a trailer.

I was interested in how we create an environment that can better tolerate ignitions. That was when we applied for our Accelerator grant. The way you create a fire-tolerant environment is by starting intentional fires. All the brush and trees growing on California wildland is stored energy just waiting for a spark – like a roller coaster at the top of its tracks about to come racing down. Intentional fires are a way to get rid of that fuel in a controlled way. This is an approach we’ve learned from nomadic Native American tribes who would set intentional fires as they left one location for another to ensure a suitable place to return the following season. 

Prescribed fires are a way for society to choose the place and time of battle – to decide where we fight and how we fight fire. If you let nature choose, you’re much more likely to lose. Our proposal to the Accelerator was really about how we change the policy regime that had been cobbled together over a century.

What did your Accelerator seed grant allow you to do that wouldn’t have been possible without it?

The team’s three-pronged effort included, first, establishing a liability insurance structure for “prescribed” fires, which are set intentionally to reduce risks from unintentional ones; second, creating policies that protect California students from the health consequences of wildfire smoke and air pollution in the classroom; and third, developing a quantitative planning process for reducing wildfire risk in California.

First, we created a policy lab staffed with law students, young lawyers, postdocs, and graduate students to work on multiple elements of this problem and to advance an innovative collaboration with a Native American tribe to conduct traditional land stewardship practices on their ancestral territories, or what we call “cultural fire.” This work grew out of an ongoing body of work around prescribed fire and cultural fire. One of the problems we identified is the lack of insurance for prescribed fires. It’s too risky for the insurance companies. In lieu of that, we helped draft a policy proposal that led to legislation that created a claims fund that is, in effect, a substitute for insurance that allows prescribed fires to move forward.

Next, we worked with the California Department of Public Health on a study of the health impacts of wildfire smoke by measuring indoor air quality in California schools. Kids are one of the most vulnerable populations, especially kids with asthma. We deployed air monitors in schools and are continuing to monitor and gather data. Several reports have resulted from that work, and we are continuing to study the problem.

Last but not least, we have been an important player in helping the state and the public utilities to plan better and manage the risk of utility-caused wildfires – a common source of ignition. We created a policy framework in California to think holistically about wildfire risk that I think is going to lead to federal legislation. Utility fire is our most intense area of focus at the lab. We spend 10 times as much on reducing utility fires as we do on everything else. 

Each of these initiatives was made possible, at least in part, by our Accelerator grant.

What excites you about this work?

This policy work was so successful that it is now getting so big, growing so fast, that we will likely have to leave the Stanford environment and spin off an NGO to handle all the work. I’m spending more time hiring people than I am on policy work. But the opportunity to work closely with state and federal government and tribal partners to reduce risk of wildfires and to help vulnerable populations is why I got involved in wildfire policy in the first place. That our team has not just contributed to, but led, a real rethinking of wildfire policy in California is really fun and exciting to me. Wildfire policy in California and the West is set to make some major steps forward very soon.

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