Perspective : Wildfires aren’t that bad … really.

Having always been interested in volcanism, I couldn’t resist a visit to watch the current eruption in Hawaii. It was amazing! While gazing with awe at fountains and rivers of molten rock, I began to realize that “Colorado’s disastrous wildfires” aren’t so catastrophic as they might be. I’m not saying that wildfires aren’t horrible, just that “It could be worse!”

Here are some of the ways wildfires are better than eruptions : (Photos at bottom)

1. Before a wildfire ever starts, you can plan and prepare for such a contingency. You can trim trees, cut a buffer zone around your home, and use fire-resistant building materials. As a fire approaches, you can put a sprinkler system in place, wrap or gel some things, and hope that the fire-fighting crews succeed in protecting your structures.

There is no realistic way to prevent lava from engulfing everything in its path. The only thing you can do is evacuate.

2. Evacuation orders for wildfires generally span only a few days.

For an eruption, an evacuation order may run for weeks or months and, in extreme cases, may NEVER be lifted. Residents may be allowed into some less-dangerous or currently inactive zones, but moving back permanently may not be possible because services are out (and out for a long time). Even with a careful permitting process for locals, checkpoints on all roads and frequent police patrols, the exclusion zone in a rural residential area will have a porous border. Looting abandoned homes has apparently become a problem that won’t disappear for as long as areas remain uninhabited.

3. If your home burns in a wildfire, chances are good that insurance will cover the loss. This is true even if it is a vacation home.

Some 600-700 homes have already been destroyed by flowing lava in Hawaii since May. I asked various people about insurance coverage and was told that most homeowners did not have insurance. A bit of research on the subject backed that up (see below).

From Jerry Bump, chief deputy insurance commissioner at the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs : “There’s no such a thing as volcano insurance or lava flow insurance. Damage could be covered if the homeowner had purchased a policy that covers all risk, but that kind of coverage is rare, hard-to-find and might be very expensive. It is unclear if any of the affected residents had All-Risk insurance. For people who live in designated USGS lava zoned areas, trying to get (insurance) coverage would be difficult. From the insurer's perspective, it's what we call anti-selection -- the risk is just too high.” He noted that a general homeowners policy might cover losses in SOME cases, such as if they can prove that the house burned due to lava damage, but this is iffy.

From USA Today : “Apparently many people whose homes have been destroyed don’t have insurance, and FEMA officials are working with local authorities to get disaster assistance to those who qualify. Many won’t: FEMA payments generally won’t cover second homes or vacation property or buildings erected without proper permits, and many of the properties in the path of the lava fall into those categories.”

4. After a wildfire, you can be certain that road access and utilities will be restored, probably quite quickly.

After an eruption, roads may never be restored. In fact, it may be years or even decades before a flow zone becomes inactive. Likewise, utility restoration may be considerably delayed and may never happen in some spots. In the case of the current eruption in Hawaii, the local geothermal energy plant was partly destroyed by lava and is now in an inaccessible location. So, not only are the poles and lines gone, the plant itself will have to be rebuilt in a new location.

5. If your property is one of the green (unburned) oases in an otherwise burned area, you can breathe a sigh of relief – you are one of the lucky ones.

Flowing lava may encircle some land, cutting it off entirely. Even once the flow cools enough to walk across, it is unlikely that road and utility access will be extended to these orphan parcels. Thus, even if your land is untouched, it may be essentially unusable. Even if you were willing to live off-the-grid, it would probably not work well to live there.

6. Once the wildfire is out, you are generally clear to enter the area. Even before it is out, short visits may be allowed.

With a widespread eruption like this one, the lava may stop flowing in your area but the evacuation order may not be lifted. A shift in the wind could bring toxic clouds of sulphur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, particulates and more across your land. Even a short visit could prove deadly without proper breathing apparatus.

The USGS and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory staff kept stating that fissures could reactivate at any time, new fissures could form without warning, flow rates could change dramatically, and break-outs could occur from apparently “safely” channelized flows. They also warned that a larger earthquake in the ongoing swarm of quakes could affect all of the above.

7. A wildfire probably won’t exacerbate homelessness or poor race relations.

These were some of the least visible and most sad discoveries I made while talking with officials and local media about the eruption. As presented to me, here are a couple of the areas of conflict.

A. Media interviews with persons who have lost their homes have apparently tended to be with white folks who have retired to Hawaii or who had a vacation home in the affected area. Local Hawaiians who have lived in the area for generations have seemingly not been well represented in interviews and the images of yet another rich white person wringing their hands have not been well received. Relations between long-term locals and newcomers have often not been good and this is making it worse.

B. The land in the affected area was the cheapest land available on the island due to the recognized risk. As such, it attracted the poorest of the locals as well as vacation homeowners who could afford to speculate on the location. The vacation homeowners can generally afford the loss (even if they whine on national news about it). The local poor are considerably less able to weather the loss. Even with disaster relief funds, they may not be able to afford land anywhere else and their current land may be unusable. The divide between rich and poor is thus being made worse by the eruption.

8. After a wildfire, your waterfront property is still on the water.

In Hawaii, any new land created on the shore by lava entering the ocean becomes property of the state. Thus, your waterfront property could literally become land-locked even if it was still usable due to some vagaries in lava flow patterns.

9. After a wildfire, you can generally rebuild and replant and your land will probably regain much of its pre-fire value.

After being covered by a lava flow, your land may take decades to recover any value, if it does at all. It is unlikely that you will live long enough to see it recover much value or utility. In addition, the current flow in Hawaii has covered a number of recreational resources beloved by all the locals (not just those directly affected by the flow) : an entire bay favored for snorkeling, a lake surrounded by a ring of hills, favorite hot springs and more.

May this perspective piece help you stay in a happy frame of mind as Colorado’s fire season progresses. Let it rain!

Comments

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  • Brenda, Thank you for letting us know the results of your visit. You answered many questions that I would have had if the opportunity presented it to me. I am glad that you looked into the plight of the locals. The indigenous people often suffer the most. In Hawaii, the largest landowners are the descendants of the first missionaries on the island. the wealthy most likely can afford the loss. With that said, I think of the people that property around a volcano somewhat like I think of the folks that live on the coast in an area that is bound to get destroyed by a Hurricane. We have too many people living on the coast that we are supposed to sympathize in the event of a self fulfilling prophesy.

  • Thank you, Vagabond. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this piece. The eruption was fascinating, awe-inspiring and beautiful, while also being heart-rending. And, very true, this was a well-recognized rift zone with high danger ... but no one thinks it will happen to THEM.

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