• California
  • Climate Change
  • Corporate Sustainability
  • Climate Action

California Wildfires Are a Call for Corporate Attention to Adaptation

Noah Goldstein
Nov 30, 2018

Field

Throughout California this November, wildfires have done incredible damage. This year, the Mendocino Complex Fire was the biggest fire on record, and the Camp Fire was the deadliest. The second-largest fire on record was the Thomas Fire that burned Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in 2017. In addition to the deaths in Paradise, California, the Camp Fire spread toxic smoke over much of the state, causing schools to close for days and creating untold heath impacts. Unfortunately, Californians will have to adjust to the new normal of extreme wildfires, and the increase in severe repercussions. Early estimates of the economic effects of these recent fires is at least $10 billion. 

There are many reasons why fire impacts will increase, and these are associated with the different spatiotemporal scales of wildfire. First, and largest scale, hot and dry fire weather is more prevalent in fire-prone regions due to climate change. According to the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (Volume II), wildfire will be here to stay:

“As the climate warms, projected increases in wildfire frequency and area burned are expected to drive up costs associated with health effects, loss of homes and infrastructure, and fire suppression.” 
Fourth National Climate Assessment

Second, at the national scale, the approach to fighting fire has been one of suppression. For the past 100 years, the prevailing management tool has been to squelch all fires, resulting in massive buildups of tinder. Lastly, at the local scale, people have been building into the wildland-urban interface, placing their homes in between patches of vegetation that has adapted to a fire. When cities burn, they are rebuilt in place, with insurance enabling the financial risk burden to be spread throughout the states or the country.

Corporates, Take Heed

With all the tumult associated with wildfires, the largest efforts focusing on wildfire prevention, adaptation, and resilience have been by and for governments. Corporations on the other hand, the engines of our economy, have been silent on how wildfires could affect them. This contrasts with the leadership that many large corporates have been demonstrating in mitigating contributions to climate change, whether through committing to a carbon-reduction target or purchasing renewable power.

The business community needs to wake up and prepare for more wildfires and other disasters associated with climate change. But how can businesses, mostly located in cities, adapt to natural events that are triggered by different spatiotemporal scales? It seems so daunting. In terms of adaptation and preparation, it is all about local impacts. Most companies still need to understand their risks, whether directly from wildfires or wildfire smoke, and how they can change over the course of a year. They need to identify key points of action that they can take, to ensure their facilities are resilient and that their workforce is prepared. And they need to examine how their data infrastructure and supply chain could be influenced by disasters like wildfires. As approaches to assessing risks to climate change grow in adoption, like the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure, companies can’t look from a distance at the risk of natural disasters. Better knowledge and planning lead to more resilient companies, and this helps make society more resilient as well. Wildfire planning is needed now, by businesses at all scales. Wildfires have always been a natural disruptor of the natural landscape; they don’t have to be a disruptor of the economy.