Emotional and Financial Impacts of the “New Norm”  


WE HAD SOLD the family home, and twenty acres it sat on, shortly after our parents passed away. My mother and father had bought the land and built their dream home after years of working and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They enjoyed peaceful days in northern California’s “Gold Country,” and we all held fond memories of family gatherings and visits to their property. My siblings and I hated to let it go, but time had come for someone new to make memories of their own. I didn’t return to mom and dad’s place until after the Butte Fire of 2015 burnt the house to the ground, and scorched the surrounding countryside.

The fire started at 2:26 P.M. on Wednesday, September 9, just east of Jackson in Amador County. A power line came into contact with a tree and ignited the surrounding tinder-dry landscape. It quickly grew into an out of control inferno, spreading south-east from Amador County and into Calaveras County. On September 11, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in both counties. After weeks of devastation, the inferno had finally succumbed on October 1 after consuming 70,868 acres, destroying 475 residences, 343 outbuildings, and causing two deaths.

Remnants of the Butte Fire of 2015 in Calaveras County, California.


Four years later, PG&E announced it would pay $1 billion to eighteen local governments and agencies affected by wildfires. State fire investigators confirmed that the utility’s electrical lines were to blame for three major wild fires, and payments will be made for the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 North Bay Fires, and the 2018 Camp Fire. PG&E still faces a third large group of legal claims from individual plaintiffs, whose cases are pending in federal and state courts. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January and recently entered into a Chapter 11 reorganization plan.

Insurance companies are also a major part of funding rebuilding, and customers are taking a huge hit. Earlier this year, our home insurance along with most everyone in El Dorado County, had their policies cancelled. We were finally able to put together a plan that included the California Fair Act policy combined with a special rider—at a 350% cost increase.


Catastrophic California wildfires are now considered the “new norm.”


In 2018, federal and state authorities estimated that cleanup efforts for wildfires will total over $3 billion, more than double the $1.3 billion that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent clearing debris after the 2017 fire season. The devastating fires of 2019, and the costs of firefighting, destroyed property, and cleanup, is sure to eclipse these numbers. And this is only one western state—wildfire destruction is dramatically increasing in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon.

Scientists agree that wildfire destruction will only get worse as climate change progresses. That means the costs of rebuilding in the aftermath of catastrophic wildfires will continue to increase. With the present administration opening up the floodgates for oil exploration and fossil fuel expansion, the trend could be irreversible and ignores basic economic sense. Economists now argue that eliminating fossil fuels would greatly strengthen the economy. Over the past decade, the cost of solar and wind power has dropped drastically. This has led to rapid expansion of these technologies, creating jobs and providing much cheaper, cleaner, and safer sources of power.


Site of our old family home in Calaveras County.


Putting aside financial impacts of wildfire destruction, the emotional impact is incalculable. We had long sold the family home and property, but viewing its destruction hit us hard. The fire had roared through so quickly that skeletal shapes of remaining oaks, pines, and manzanita still stood, surrounding the cement foundation as if paying a final homage. The wood stove, one of the few items that survived the intense heat, brought back memories of hot-buttered rum drinks warmed on its surface during the holidays. The stovepipe reached upward as if marking the place where so many memories were made—laughter, conversation, and the smell of Mom’s meals cooking in the kitchen. I can’t imagine the immense heartache that so many families experience when losing their homes.

This year, over 6,402 fires have been recorded in California alone according to Cal Fire and the US Forest Service, totaling an estimated 250,349 acres of burned land as of November 3. PG&E and other power utilities have preemptively shut off power to over one million residents due to risks of wildfires starting in high winds due to high-voltage power lines. While large areas have been without power for days, people in high fire risk areas have trouble getting updated information, and critical life support equipment will not work without backup power. The “new norm” has arrived.


Related video:

During a tour of land devastated by the Butte fire that swept across Amador and Calaveras counties in September 2015, Bob Garamendi points out the sites where his friends and neighbors’ ranches once stood.