By Claudia Boyd-Barrett
This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Type Investigations and the California Health Report.
At an assistance center for wildfire survivors in Quincy, Californians lined up to speak with Matt Plotkin and other relief staff. One after another, they told the stories of how their homes had burned to the ground.
A couple stepped forward. They had lost it all too, they explained.
But it wasn’t the first time.
Their rental housing burned in the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed their hometown of Paradise. Then they moved to the small community of Berry Creek, only to be displaced two years later in the 2020 North Complex Fire. The following year, after settling in nearby Plumas County, the Dixie Fire left them homeless again.
The couple, who had lost three houses in three separate fires over the course of four years, became, for Plotkin, the faces of the coming crisis for California — where annual wildfires leave more people without homes in a state already squeezed dry of affordable places to live.
“What do you tell these people?” said Plotkin, who works for United Way of Northern California. “It’s just so heartbreaking when you hear they tried to restore and recover themselves in a new community and then that community gets wiped out, and then they go to another one and that gets wiped out.”
A disaster services manager, Plotkin helps wildfire survivors find housing and resources. But bigger and more frequent wildfires are making his job harder.
With each loss, Plotkin said, the trauma “just magnifies.”
As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires in California and throughout the West, more people are losing their homes and facing long-term displacement and instability, including homelessness. This week, the massive McKinney fire is swallowing homes and forest land indiscriminately in Siskiyou County, forcing thousands to evacuate. Some, like the families Plotkin regularly encounters, are reliving the trauma of losing a home to wildfires multiple times. Those with fewer assets and resources are most at risk of losing housing due to wildfires, particularly renters, people without adequate property insurance and those with informal living arrangements (who live in trailers on someone else’s property or live with multiple families, for example). These individual struggles exacerbate the confluence of three statewide crises: destruction wrought by climate change, a severe lack of affordable housing and the many Californians experiencing homelessness.
Researchers and those who work with disaster victims said there is insufficient government assistance to help the most vulnerable wildfire survivors find long-term, stable housing. There also isn’t enough housing to accommodate California’s swelling population of wildfire refugees. Solutions, experts said, must tackle both of these problems.
Wildfires and the destruction they cause have become a societal problem, and like all societal problems, those with more resources are better equipped to recover. Californians who are dealing with other pressing needs, such as putting food on the table or paying rent, do not always have the ability to plan for catastrophic fires, or the financial resources to withstand disruptions to their housing arrangements. The result is that low-wage workers, seniors on fixed incomes, people of color, immigrants, those with disabilities and many other Californians — who are already impacted by the legacy of social, economic and environmental inequities — are being further left behind. California is, in many ways, becoming a state where the wealthy can weather climate change while the rest struggle to survive.
More than 3,600 structures, including homes, burned in California wildfires during 2021. Between 2005 and 2020, nearly 60,000 structures were lost to fire in the state, according to the research firm Headwaters Economics. Some of these are rentals, which landlords may choose not to rebuild. Others are uninsured or underinsured homes that property owners can’t afford to reconstruct. Even property owners who get insurance payouts may decide to find a home elsewhere. Others can face a years-long wait for permit approvals and construction completion. The result is thousands of more Californians looking for housing in an already strained market.
In rural Trinity County, large wildfires have displaced hundreds of residents since 2017, said Sheri White, executive director of Human Response Network, a nonprofit organization in Weaverville. Many of those without the means to rebuild or find a new rental have moved in with family or left the area altogether. Others are living in travel trailers her organization provided as a temporary solution because they have been unable to find a permanent place to live.
“If they want to stay in Trinity County, it’s extremely difficult to find a place to stay,” she said. “Renting up here can be expensive. We have rentals that are $1,600 a month, and that’s kind of expensive if you are working a minimum wage job or living on social security or retirement alone and you don’t have a larger retirement.”
Elsewhere in the state, especially in the larger cities and coastal areas, rent can easily cost double that amount. The cost of housing is astronomical for many Californians. Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego areas, for example, is $3,500 monthly or more.
Housing and rent prices have risen in communities where people have fled after losing their homes to wildfires. This happened in Chico in Butte County following the Camp Fire in 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. The city has witnessed an increase in poverty and long-term homelessness, straining social services.
Yet while communities face enormous long-term repercussions after a wildfire, state and federal government funding mostly tackles short-term fire suppression and cleanup costs, according to a report by Headwater Economics. Almost half of all wildfire costs — including home reconstruction — are borne by local people, municipal agencies, businesses and nonprofits, the report found.
In Trinity County after the Helena Fire, for example, White’s organization raised donations from individuals and businesses to cover the cost of the travel trailers and other support for fire victims. But more funding is needed to help people long term.
“It would be really helpful to get some federal funding to assist people in finding housing, assist people with some of the cleanup for their property so they can start the rebuilding process,” she said.
Whether federal help is available for fire victims also depends on if a fire is large and destructive enough to be declared a federal disaster. Even then, renters and people without home insurance receive a limited amount of help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Uninsured homeowners whose properties are destroyed can get a maximum of $34,900 — generally not enough to buy another home in California. Renters, especially those who did not have formal rental contracts or arrangements, often struggle to get any FEMA money at all, Plotkin said. Those who are undocumented are ineligible to receive FEMA aid.
So far, community and government responses to wildfires have focused on rebuilding in the same location, “hardening” homes to increase fire resistance and creating “defensible space” around fire-prone homes and neighborhoods by removing flammable materials. But in an age of runaway climate change, some experts believe that’s no longer enough. Instead, they said some Californians will need to retreat entirely from wildfire prone areas.
Families like the one Plotkin described are already leaving, albeit involuntarily and without sufficient support or housing alternatives. Some others who are still living in areas impacted by wildfires want to move. A 2021 Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that about 1 in 6 Americans who reported noticing more extreme weather in their areas are considering moving.
To avoid further wildfire-induced homelessness and destabilization of the housing market, policymakers must figure out how to better manage this retreat, experts said. Suggestions include using federal disaster funds to pay for voluntary relocation, building denser and more affordable housing in urban centers largely protected from wildfires, and using insurance or tax incentives to encourage reconstruction and new housing development in safer locations.
“In many of these places we can’t really manage our way out of wildfires,” said Emily Schlickman, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the impacts of fires on Butte County’s housing supply, including in Chico where homelessness has ballooned since the Camp Fire.
“I think what’s happening in Butte County is kind of a glimpse of what’s to come in the rest of the state,” Schlickman said.
Some of this managed relocation could be accomplished using FEMA dollars, Schlickman said. The agency could offer voluntary buyouts for homes destroyed or at severe risk for wildfires, just as it has in some coastal areas of the state prone to flooding. In some cases, it may be necessary to relocate entire communities.
At the same time, California must invest more in building affordable and dense housing in urban centers, said Robert B. Olshansky, an expert in urban planning and lead author on a report by the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation, commissioned by the nonprofit advocacy group Next 10.
“Providing more housing units … and more affordable units in central places accessible to services will not only help us continue to meet the well-known housing goals for the state, but also actually help us to address the fire problem,” he said.
His report also suggests using property tax and fire insurance surcharges to discourage people from building or buying property in fire prone areas, although Olshansky said this must include caveats to ensure low-income residents in those areas are not further disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, Californians continue to move into wildfire-prone areas for a variety of reasons, including to find a lower-cost housing or to live closer to nature. The state has issued moratoriums to prohibit insurance companies from dropping coverage for homes in areas impacted by wildfires. And the state has been slow to build more homes that people can afford.
What’s more, while a data analysis by Columbia Journalism Investigations shows
California received over $1.55 billion in FEMA funds to mitigate disaster risks between 1991 and 2021, none of this money has been used to move people out of the way of wildfires through property buyouts (although $56 million in federal funds has been used to acquire properties impacted by other types of disasters such as river and coastal flooding), FEMA did fund $66.6 million in wildfire mitigation projects in California during that time period, with the vast majority of funds spent on reducing fire risks, such as by clearing vegetation around properties and retrofitting buildings.
In an email, Rosa C. Norman with FEMA’s Communications Division said agency funding can be used to acquire properties endangered by wildfires, but this requires an application from the state, tribe, or territory in which the property is located, the consent of each property owner, and FEMA approval. No one can be forced to take a buyout for their property, she noted.
Brian Ferguson, deputy director for crisis communication and public affairs with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said the state has led the nation in recent years by creating a disaster preparedness outreach and education program, and through investments in hardening homes and communities against wildfires. However, the state is not looking at moving people out of wildfire zones through property buyouts as it poses both moral and practical challenges, he said.
“Our government has a long history of displacing people, particularly vulnerable populations, people of color in the name of progress, whether that be for placing our freeways or for other sorts of governmental initiatives,” he said. “I think we would be very thoughtful or cautious before engaging in any sort of program of moving individuals out of their historic community.”
At the same time, the number of people living in areas at risk for wildfires is enormous. Between 8 and 10 million Californians live in the “wildland urban interface” – the areas between forests and urban centers. Moving that number of people away from their homes isn’t practical, Ferguson said. Additionally, many Californians want to live in these areas despite the fire risk, he added.
That said, counties and other local jurisdictions can still choose to apply to FEMA for grants that fund property acquisitions if they choose.
Schlickman said she’s hopeful governments will invest more in moving people out of harm’s way. In Paradise, a pilot program managed by the city’s recreation department and funded largely by nonprofit grants and donations is experimenting with offering voluntary buyouts. Chico is coming up with ways to expand affordable housing, including by creating tiny home communities.
“There’s a big push for us to get really creative,” Schlickman said. “I think the wheels are turning.”
Meanwhile, the United Way of Northern California continues to pour resources into helping fire survivors, such as the couple in Quincy. Last year alone the organization provided more than $1.6 million in financial assistance to over 1,000 families affected by the Camp fire, North Complex fire and 2021 wildfires, including the couple in Quincy. But it’s not enough to help everyone who needs it, Plotkin said. And with the threat of more wildfires looming in the heat-and-drought-stricken state, he worries it could get increasingly challenging for philanthropic organizations to raise funds after each new disaster.
“We’re getting to a place in our society where disaster fatigue is real,” Plotkin said.