But even when a community does suffer from wildfire, the pressure to rebuild quickly, and without costly new regulations, is often intense.
In addition, building codes for new construction only go so far, because they don’t address the millions of homes already built. Consider the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, Calif., in 2010, killing 85 people. One analysis found that about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built to California’s new codes escaped damage. But of the 12,100 homes built before then, only 18 percent were undamaged.
Retrofitting millions of existing homes can be expensive. For instance, single-pane windows are at risk of breaking from the heat of a fire, allowing embers in. But replacing those windows with sturdier glass can potentially cost $10,000 for a single home. In California, legislation to retrofit existing homes against wildfires have stalled over questions of funding.
Other communities are coming up with their own creative solutions.
In Boulder, Colo., county officials worked with insurance companies on an incentive program set up after the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010 burned dozens of homes. Residents can have a specialist visit and identify steps to reduce fire risk, such as removing certain trees or cleaning dead leaves from gutters. Homeowners who comply have a better chance of getting insured.
Experts also say both the federal government and states will need to rethink their approach to managing forests.
For over a century, firefighting agencies have focused on extinguishing fires whenever they occur. That strategy has often proved counterproductive. Many landscapes evolved to burn periodically, and when fires are suppressed, vegetation builds up thickly in forests. So when fires do break out, they tend to be far more severe and destructive.
The Forest Service has programs to thin out forests, removing smaller trees and brush. But those efforts remain relatively modest, and funding is a hurdle: The share of the Forest Service’s budget devoted to fighting fires has risen from 15 percent to 55 percent in recent years, leaving less money to prevent fires in the first place. And forest-thinning programs can be poorly targeted, researchers have found, as they often support logging efforts, rather than effectively reducing fire risk.