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Public Opinion toward Wildfire Policies Poll, October 2019

Living with wildfire is the new normal in California. In 2019, as in previous years, wildfires caused over 100 thousand people to flee their homes, and smoke covered large areas of the state. In 2020, PG&E pre-emptively took steps to limit its liability for damages caused by downed power lines by shutting off electricity for many people in Northern California and the Bay Area. The 2021 fire season is only just beginning, but experts predict more record-breaking wildfire events.

In an effort to understand what the public supports with respect to wildfire policy, the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University conducted an American Western regional poll that included 3,000 respondents and asked many questions about wildfire policy. Among the sample, 1,046 reside in California. The survey was fielded between August 25 and September 6, 2019, and it resulted in the 2021 paper, "Baptism by Wildfire? Wildfire Experiences and Public Support for Wildfire Adaptation Policies," published in the journal American Politics Research.

California has been on the forefront of efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions but the wildfires remind Californians that the state will also need to adapt in various ways in order to be resilient to climate changes that have already started.

The public opinion survey reveals the following for our California sample:

  • As of the time of the time of the poll (Aug15-Sept 6, 2019), 25% of Californian surveyed reported that they or someone they knew had experienced a wildfire event personally in the past 12 months.
  • Even more said they were exposed to wildfire smoke.  About 52% said that they experienced smoke from wildfires in the past 12 months.  This is nearly identical to the numbers exposed to smoke in the Western coastal (CA plus Oregon and Washington) and interior Western states (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Nevada).
  • Of those who were exposed to the smoke, about half of Californians claimed to take some precautionary measures. For the vast majority of those who were exposed to smoke, this meant paying attention to the Air Quality Reports (79%) or staying indoors (83%). 
  • Far fewer wore a respirator N95/P100 (28%), wore a dusk/paper/or cloth mask (35%) used an air purifier (30%), left town (18%) or consulted a healthcare provider (9%)

In terms of policies that would reduce either the hazards of and exposure to wildfires, we found:

  • A majority of Californians favor requiring property owners to undertake prescriptive burns and other fuel reduction measures (55%).
  • A majority also favor restricting residential (62%) and commercial (60%) in areas that could potentially be affected by wildfires
  • However, there is far less than majority support for requiring property owners to buy wildfire insurance (36%) or mandating relocation out of wildfire prone areas (28%) or even prohibiting owners from rebuilding in those same locations after losing property in a wildfire event (22%)

In terms of using public money to subsidize protective measures related to wildfires:

  • While no measure reaches majority support, Californians are most open to subsidizing home upgrades (48%) and insurance (41%).
  • However, when these measures are targeted to low income individuals, public for home upgrade and insurance subsidies rises to over 50%
  • Support for subsidizing protective upgrades and insurance for commercial properties drops to about a third of the respondents.
  • There is little support for subsidizing retreat and relocation or buyouts for either home or commercial properties, even for low income individuals.

In short, there is still resistance to doing much more than requiring property owners to take steps to better protect their properties and some restrictions in development in wildfire prone areas. Respondents are reluctant to force or spend money to induce property owners to move out of harms’ way.