How Much Do Wildfires Really Cost California’s Economy?
In South Lake Tahoe, Domi Chavarria, co-owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, felt the devastation of the Caldor Fire even before the city was evacuated in August. Smoke had blanketed the city, and the tourists had mostly left. When the evacuation orders came down, Verde was stocked with food, almost all of which went bad during the more than two weeks the restaurant ultimately remained closed. Produce wilted; proteins went bad; prepared sauces couldn’t be used.
“All that stuff, none of that’s made to last weeks — it’s all made the last days,” says Chavarria. He estimates the lost inventory was worth between $10,000 and $13,000. None of it was covered by his insurance.
Losses like Chavarria’s add up — to at least $50.3 million in lost economic activity for El Dorado County, according to an initial estimate shared with CalMatters.
Knowing the true cost of wildfires could spur more ambitious action from both government and the private sector, experts say. For instance, tracking the costs systematically over several years could help policymakers figure out which fire prevention and mitigation strategies are most cost effective.
But right now, California has an incomplete understanding of how much wildfires cost the state each year.
The costs of business disruption, the cost of damage to uninsured homes, the cost of ecosystem damage, and the cost of secondary health impacts — such as those caused by wildfire smoke — aren’t being tracked.
Right now, we don’t have a comprehensive picture of the economic harm wildfires cause each year, according to Teresa Feo, senior science officer at the California Council on Science and Technology and lead author of a 2020 report from the council on the cost of wildfires in California.
“There isn’t a statewide systematic tracking effort to figure out these costs,” says Feo. She said it took only about a month of digging into the question to realize: ”Oh no, you can’t come up with a number, this is actually impossible with the existing data.”
The state does not track or estimate the cost of wildfires in a way that accounts for public health costs or ecological damage on a regular basis, confirmed Heather Williams, communications director for California Natural Resources Agency. “Those would always be a moving target since health impacts can occur years later. But with more research being funded, this may be more feasible to help the state better understand the economic…