Most people believe wildfires are a wall of flame that engulfs buildings. Renowned professor and environmental economist says otherwise. He says the culprit is ember branding, the very foundation of a house.

Dr. Patrick Baylis from the University of British Columbia presented at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren Hall on Feb. 12. He presented his newly published study on wildfire mitigation through federal policies and increased public awareness. 

Wildfires have been a persistent and costly environmental issue in California. Over a quarter of the state’s population lives in areas with high wildfire risks and although various state and federal policies require homeowners in high risk areas to take precautionary measures, these laws are seldom enforced. In addition, Baylis mentioned that many common wildfire counter measures such as vegetation management actually exacerbates the problem as the natural fire cycle is disrupted, increasing the frequency of wildfires while decreasing native vegetation’s resistance. 

Baylis’ research also examines the financial aspect of wildfire management, citing a large mismatch between local and federal investment in suppression efforts. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government spends around $2..5 billion dollars per year on wildfire suppression yet total acreage and homes destroyed has been increasing since 2016.  Previous researchers encountered difficulties finding cost effective ways to enforce wildfire prevention regulations. For instance, a wildfire building code was introduced in Oregon but received massive pushback with the lawmaker even receiving death threats from multiple homeowners. 

To address the issue of public pushback and lack of standardized practices, Baylis and his team began comparing different incentivization techniques with over 4,000 homeowners in Jackson County, Oregon to figure out methods of establishing a cohesive wildfire suppression system. 

Contrary to popular belief, the danger of wildfire actually resides in the embers rather than the flames itself. Construction materials such as wood or bark are highly combustible when in contact with embers. Dead plants and leaves in backyards also speeds up the progress of wildfires. Firebrands from conifers can also fly through the air, sometimes a considerable distance, and ignite homes without the flames ever coming near the property. 

To combat this phenomenon, homeowners are advised to set up zones known as defensible spaces by replacing flammable material and debris. However, the cost of establishing defensible space can vary greatly as some properties simply need to be cleaned while others need complete renovations using hardscape materials. 

To start, Baylis and his team began distributing flyers around Jackson County. There were four types of flyers distributed ranging from moral suasion to $250-$500 cash subsidies that encouraged residents to contact local fire departments for a defensible space diagnostic. Flyers were randomly distributed, with control groups receiving flyers without the promise of a subsidy. 

Unfortunately, the initial set of distributed flyers did not receive the anticipated response, with only 10% of homeowners in the experimental group contacting the local fire department. In an attempt to increase local engagement, Baylis decided to switch the flyers into letter form with fewer pictures and more words describing the importance of defensible space. Surprisingly, the feedback rate nearly doubled.. Such proactivity amongst residents has been unprecedented in previous wildfire studies and is a promising sign for growing public awareness of wildfire risk management. 

“We use our results to calculate spatially differentiated implicit subsidies for homeowners throughout the western United States,” said Baylis in his article.“Wildfire protection represents a large transfer of federal and state revenues to homeowners in high-cost places, making it an important mechanism for redistribution to rural and ex-urban areas that has not been fully appreciated by economists.” 

As climate change continues to alter the occurrence of natural disasters across the world, the cost of policy implementation also rises exponentially — and researchers must come up with new adaptive counter measures which must be reflected in public policy. 

In the wake of the pilot program’s success, Baylis stated that he is excited to continue his study on a broader scale across the American West. 

A version of this article appeared on pg. 7 of the Feb. 22, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.