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How Much Will the California Wildfires Cost?

Good morning.

The fires across the West have continued to burn, continued to kill people, and continued to incinerate homes and fill our air with smoke. Firefighters have continued to do the arduous, time-consuming work of containing explosive flames before they reach the places we most want to protect.

It’s an all-consuming cycle — one in which it would be understandable to forget that, once the fires have been extinguished, it’s all going to cost residents, businesses and governments a lot of money.

Tom Corringham, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has not forgotten.

“We’re setting records year after year,” he told me on Tuesday. “It’s a little early to say what the total impacts are going to be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the damages are over $20 billion this year.”

And that, he added, is counting only the “direct costs.”

Mr. Corringham studies the economic impacts of extreme weather, which, as you might expect, are at once growing and difficult to count.

In addition to the relatively clear-cut dollar figures associated with fighting the fires and the damage to property, there are health care bills, costs of disrupted business, lost tax revenue, decreased property values and what Mr. Corringham described as “reverse tourism” — people fleeing smoke or not visiting certain areas because of it.

Studies show those indirect costs add up to at least as much as the direct ones; some studies say it’s multiples more.

[Read more from The New York Times Magazine about how climate migration is already reshaping the world — and California could be next.]

I’d spoken to Mr. Corringham before, because he and his team previously analyzed the costs of atmospheric rivers. (Remember those?) Heavy rains brought by atmospheric rivers caused on average about $1 billion in damage each year in the West, his study found.

Over the past 50 years, excluding the last four, wildfires averaged about the same in direct damages: a billion dollars per year, adjusted for inflation.

But in three of the past four years, including this one, fires are on track to cause damages in excess of $10 billion.

“We’ve seen an order of magnitude leap in damages in the last four years,” he said in an email.

[Read more about how this year’s infernos are hastening insurers’ pullback from fire-prone areas of California.]

None of that even touches on the rippling costs of the record-breaking heat waves that have hit California this year, nor does it account for the fact that the fires are coming in the midst of an economically catastrophic pandemic.

Mr. Corringham said that figuring out ways to more fully quantify the costs of disasters driven by climate change would help make the financial case for bigger, longer term policy fixes.

“Any reasonable analysis has shown that the return on investment to shifting the economy away from fossil fuels is just huge,” he said.

That’s especially true as renewable energy becomes less expensive globally.

All the data, grim as it may be, is also helping scientists improve climate models, which in turn helps policymakers and insurers determine risks of building in certain fire-prone areas.

In the mean time, he said, policymakers must think about how to get people to move to areas that are safer — from fires, from heat, from sea level rise and flooding — including compensating them, not just for their homes, but for the loss of community.

They must do so with fairness and equity in mind.

“At the end of the day, the most important element is mitigation,” he said. “If we don’t do that, these costs are going to continue to spiral out of control.”

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it by email.)

Read more:

  • Senator Kamala Harris met with Gov. Gavin Newsom, a longtime political ally, and other emergency service workers to tour damage left by the still-burning Creek Fire: “When we’re talking about the climate crisis, we are talking about a public health crisis.” [The Fresno Bee]

Track the biggest fires and air quality across the West. [The New York Times]

  • Some of the planet’s most polluted skies are over the West Coast. And the smoke has drifted across the continent. [The New York Times]

  • Can’t find an air purifier? Here’s how to make one yourself. [Wirecutter]

  • Losing Mount Wilson Observatory in the Bobcat Fire would be losing a major part of scientific history. [LAist]

  • In California, some counties have allowed bars to reopen indoors. Nationwide, that move has been tied to increases in coronavirus cases. [The Washington Post]

  • University of California, San Diego, students and staff members will soon get notifications on their cellphones if they have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s part of a pilot program, along with U.C. San Francisco, that could be rolled out to the whole state. [The San Diego Union-Tribune]

Track coronavirus cases by California county. [The New York Times]

  • Is the mail getting slower? My colleagues tracked and analyzed the paths of millions of pieces of first-class mail to find out. [The New York Times]

  • Last month was the busiest in the 114-year history of the Port of Los Angeles. But don’t get too excited about an economic rebound. [The New York Times]

If you missed it, read about how the development of the port has led to the rise of enormous warehouses in the Inland Empire. [The New York Times]

  • A bill that would authorize the study of reparations for Black Californians passed the Legislature. Supporters say it’s an example of the state leading by example. But a leading expert has a word of caution. [CalMatters]

  • Disney executives started out pleased with the release of “Mulan.” Then the credits rolled, and the entertainment behemoth found itself as the latest to stumble as the United States and China clash over human rights, trade and security. [The New York Times]

  • Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the roots music festival in Golden Gate Park, would’ve been celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Now it’s doing so online and supporting local artists through its pandemic relief fund. [KQED]

Maybe if you’re not from California, “vegan tacos” sounds like a creation borne of the most stereotyped parts of our state’s culinary identity.

But as my colleague Tejal Rao, our California restaurant critic, wrote recently, vegan tacos are a perfect treat in the pandemic.

Even if you (like me) find nothing more comforting than picking up tacos filled with some combination of beef and pork on your way home from a baseball game or a bar or a concert, now is the time to acknowledge that meatless tacos aren’t some kind of pale imitation of something better.

They are, Tejal wrote, a representation of creativity in the face of soaring meat prices and a constantly shifting small-business landscape.

OK, and they’re healthy. That’s not nothing.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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