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Nejem Raheem on Lasting Effects of Wildfires

A satellite view of the Camp Fire. Photo/Wikimedia
By Erin Clossey

As FEMA looks for trailer sites in Chico, California, to house some survivor of last fall’s deadly Camp Fire, and other long-time residents are forced to scatter far and wide, it’s easy to see many of the ways the citizens of Paradise and surrounding mountain communities continue to be deeply affected by the wildfire.

But beyond the obvious catastrophic impacts of the blaze — loss of life, loss of property, loss of jobs and businesses – there are less material but still very palpable consequences that reverberate through a community after a fire of this magnitude, according to Nejem Raheem, associate professor and interim chair of Marketing Communication.

“In my area of work, we look at the value people hold for certain phenomena in nature that people might not pay for directly. People often derive certain benefits from the landscape that they might not know they’re getting,” said Raheem, an environmental economist who focuses on ecosystem services and traditional or indigenous economies.

“Some things are captured well in markets, other things aren’t captured well,” he said.

Raheem gives an example of a reservoir surrounded by forest. The trees, through a variety of ecological processes, maintain the quality of the water in the reservoir at no cost to the humans who use it.

But if the area around the reservoir becomes deforested and/or developed through natural or human causes, the quality of the water degrades, and it begins to cost more to treat the water and bring it up to standard, he said. In fact, there’s a “whole universe” of benefits humans derive from the natural world, Raheem said, such as water purification, soil stabilization, wildlife habitat, pollination, and shade.

In California, as with other parts of the Western U.S., humans are pushing into areas that were once considered wild, Raheem said.

“Those people, for a number of things, rely on those ecosystems being in a particular condition,” he said.

Not the least of those things is flood control.

The Los Angeles region historically gets huge debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains that track cyclically with wildfires, Raheem said, as the scorched soil turns waxy and heavy rains send detritus down the mountainside.

Fires also impact things like tourism, which has monetary consequence, and recreation (as when ash degrades local trout streams), which may or may not be reflected in dollars and cents, according to Raheem.

“The effects [of wildfires] stick around long after the camera crews go home,” Raheem said. “The first couple of weeks of high drama are just the start of a whole bunch of [consequences].”

Wildfires are partly a result of climate change, as wetter winters lead to more biomass, which provides more fuel to burn during hotter and drier summers, he said.

The bad news is, climate prediction models of the Western U.S. are showing patterns of drought lasting 10 or more years over the next century, Raheem said. And humans aren’t great at solving problems with that kind of time horizon.

“We wait until everything burns down around us, and then we do something about it,” he said. “Part of the long-term cost is going to be managing, not only the landscape-level stuff, but also taking care of the impact on human communities.”

There are a “million things that need to happen” to prevent climate change and wildfires from wreaking utter destruction, he said, but one of those things is improved communication and better messaging.

We need to change the way people think about the “other,” and we have to find a way to ask people to do more work, Raheem said.

“Improving how people talk with each other, that in itself is pretty complicated.”



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