As Australia’s bushfires rage on, questions arise about the long-term impacts on human health, biodiversity and the economy. Lessons learned from the recovery following recent wildfires in California offer some pointers to what might happen when the bushfires finally subside. While immediate economic impacts include emergency relief bills, business interruptions, costly loss of goods and reduction in tourism, the long-term economic impacts vary based on municipalities’ financial resources, economic make-up, and preparedness.
Real Estate Markets
Over the past three years, wildfires have razed thousands of buildings across California, destroying multiple communities. The impacts on real estate markets varies depending on the share of properties destroyed in a local community, as well as insurance penetration. After five per cent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock burned in 2017, the city experienced an increase in property prices and rents following the fire; displaced households needed new dwellings, construction workers and emergency relief officials needed housing and amenities, and local businesses found new clientele.
Although an estimated 3,300 people left Sonoma County after the 2017 fires, in Santa Rosa, CA, rebuilding has occurred more rapidly than expected. The areas affected by the fires had relatively high insurance rates, and families were able to pay for the reconstruction of their houses. Irreplaceable personal items were lost, but the city experienced a mini economic boom due to construction in the area.
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In contrast, the city of Paradise went from 26,000 residents before the Camp Fire down to 2,000. More than one year later, only a handful of houses have been rebuilt, and many residents struggle with whether they should move back. Insurance penetration was much lower in Paradise, and many low-income households cannot afford to rebuild their lives there.
Aside from short-term shortages in housing stock, long-term impacts on real estate and local economies depend on two main factors: whether the area experienced a permanent or long-term population loss, and whether insurance companies continue to offer policies for the area. This phenomenon has also been at play after other climate-related events, such as when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The storm led to a four per cent decrease in the island’s population.
Impacts can also indirectly touch other communities near wildfires. The same Camp Fire that devastated Paradise narrowly missed the neighbouring city of Chico, CA. While Paradise’s economy has yet to recover, within three months of the fire Chico’s population grew by 20 per cent, with the addition of about 200,000 people. While Chico became the nation’s hottest real estate market the month after the fire, it also missed relief funds offered to towns touched by flames. From a sewer system now tasked with transporting 600,000 more gallons per day, to the need for more police officers and a higher hospital demand, a year after the event, the city struggled to accommodate a population the city planners hadn’t expected for a decade.
In California, the biggest impact was on the utility sector. As power lines and electric equipment were found to have started the wildfires, the liability ultimately resulted in Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) bankruptcy — coined “the first climate-change bankruptcy.” In Australia, fires are most often started by dry lightning so utilities are not so exposed to liability risk, but may still be exposed to significant costs from disruptions and repairs associated with wildfires.
The insurance sector is also very exposed. Merced Property and Casualty local insurance company went bankrupt after California’s Paradise fire. The company had $US34 million in assets and owed $US94 million in liabilities after the fire, which the State of California took over after the company defaulted. Insurance claims for the bushfires have already reached around $US939 million. Australian insurance companies could face material losses — particularly those with concentrated portfolios of properties or companies in regions affected by the fires.
For example, insurer IAG is the primary insurer in New South Wales and is thus expected to face the most financial risk from the current fires. IAG and Suncorp have both temporarily stopped selling wildfire insurance in exposed areas of Australia, to prevent last-minute insurance purchases. The final bill may be absorbed by reinsurance companies, which also need to contend with multiple, costly events globally. Increased losses, even if they do not lead to bankruptcy, can also open the door to liability. In 2019 insurance giant QBE saw a shareholder resolution regarding its lack of preparedness for climate impacts.
Beyond utilities and insurance, businesses across sectors face several short-term risks from wildfires, including business interruptions, labour shortages and reduced consumer activity due to evacuations or smoke which can affect urban centres, not themselves touched by flames. Businesses may also face increased costs due to equipment and property damage or loss. In the long term, recurring wildfires could decrease the attractiveness of certain parts of Australia, which would reduce companies’ hiring pool and decrease tourism revenues.
Residents’ decisions to stay in a recovering area is largely affected by whether insurance companies choose to provide coverage or pull out after wildfires. This, in turn, is a key factor in the viability of long-term development and the strength of cities’ tax bases. Faced with potential population loss, local governments may attempt to provide public insurance if private insurers leave a city or region, such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in the US. However, as seen with the NFIP, this mechanism can lead to unsustainable development and a moral hazard — encouraging unwise economic decisions by shifting risks from the individual buying property to the government and therefore the public.
The desire to help an area rebuild needs to be balanced against a forward-looking perspective on the new realities of climate change. As temperatures increase, droughts become more common and wildfire conditions become more frequent, climate change will make some areas no longer suitable for human settlement. In California, some insurers have stopped offering wildfire insurance to certain fire-prone counties. After careful deliberation, the state recommended the creation of a Wildfire Victims Fund to help pay claims to wildfire victims, while also supporting wildfire mitigation. However, this comes alongside recommendations to require home and community fire risk reduction standards, establish a development fee for new construction in the wildland-urban interface, and mandate that new development must be reachable by firefighters within a maximum amount of time.
The impact of wildfires on a city’s credit rating may also affect its economic prospects after an event. Issuers in Sonoma County were not downgraded after the 2017 fires, because of their strong credit quality, insurance coverage, commitment to rebuilding and long-term economic viability. The County has an emergency reserve fund, which helped make up the shortfall in property taxes for destroyed properties, assuaging any concern from rating agencies on their balance sheet post-disaster.
However, a Moody’s credit analyst noted that smaller, less well-resourced communities like those burned during the 2018 fires in rural Shasta County will face less rapid rebuilding, which means less revenue and more difficulty repaying their debt. This highlights the need for proactive preparedness efforts, particularly as those municipalities in particular need of financing may see credit declines if they experience wildfire loss.
Hidden Costs: Health Impacts
Wildfires’ impacts on human health can be long-lasting and widespread. While Paradise, CA burned down in 2018 San Francisco, about 200 miles away, had the worst air quality in the world. This led to school closures and business disruptions during the event, but its impacts are still being felt. Three to five months after Sonoma County’s 2017 fires there was a 20 per cent increase in emergency room visits for breathing challenges, as well as a 20 per cent increase in visits for cardiac problems three months after those fires. While populations are advised to stay inside to shelter from smoke, many evacuation victims do not have that option.
Suburban wildfire smoke is particularly dangerous because burning gas stations, buildings, cars, and other manmade materials release many toxins, along with tiny PM 2.5 particles. The long-term impacts of inhaling countless chemicals are not yet fully understood, but will likely exacerbate the well-documented damage to lungs and hearts caused by PM 2.5 particles. As public health costs increase, municipalities’ expenses may rise and human productivity may decline, posing additional risk to economies and communities made fragile by wildfire.
Preparing for a New Normal
Recent attempts at risk mitigation highlight the challenges to improve prevention. In October and November 2019 over a million Californians lost power during multiple PG&E “Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” meant to reduce the risk of wildfire during “red flag” conditions, with high winds and warm temperatures. With less than a day’s notice in some cases, residents, businesses and schools around San Francisco’s Bay Area spent days without power. Elderly people and those relying on medical equipment faced life-threatening hardship, local businesses experienced significant loss, long-term, high-profile research was disrupted, and costs of the event were expected to be around $US3 billion.
Australia and California used to share firefighting resources since they didn’t need them at the same time, and firefighting contractors built their businesses around staggered fire seasons. Now, Australia and California fight fires concurrently — so business models must shift and municipalities must reallocate resources.
As climate change increases the occurrence of wildfires across the globe, policymakers and communities will need to balance these considerations and invest in adaptation and resilience to limit the impact of future fires.