Ecosystem Services Valuation Supports Federal Disaster Declaration in California Rim Fire
California’s disastrous 2013 Rim Fire left huge impacts with little recourse for the State or local jurisdictions. When FEMA initially denied the State of California’s request for disaster recovery assistance, Earth Economics stepped in with a rapid ecosystem services valuation of the fire damages. The analysis revealed as much as $700 million in ecosystem services losses, compelling evidence that was included in Governor Brown’s appeal for a disaster declaration. In late 2013, President Obama declared the fire a disaster. Since then, California has received more than $91 million in federal funding to support community recovery efforts.
A Devastating Fire
In 2013, the devastating Yosemite Rim Fire swept across Tuolumne County, scarring the landscape with a burn area of 257,000 acres. This was a fire of historic proportions: the third largest fire in California since reliable records began in 1932.[i] Most of the burn area lay within federal lands: Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. Not only did it devastate wildlife and ecosystems, but it also put nearby communities at risk and threatened the watershed that supplies San Joaquin Valley and the City and County of San Francisco.
Initially, the State of California applied for a “Major Disaster Declaration” to support affected communities, but the State couldn’t show enough damages to built capital (FEMA required a roughly $50 million damage threshold for California), and natural capital damages had previously been excluded from wildfire-related FEMA applications. California Governor Jerry Brown’s initial request for assistance was denied, leaving the state heavily impacted and without recovery support.
In an appeal letter to President Obama, Governor Brown described the fire’s impact on communities. “The Rim Fire ultimately burned 402 square miles over a period of 69 days, encompassing more than 257,314 acres; causing significant impacts to the State and to the affected local jurisdictions of such severity and magnitude that recovery efforts remain beyond our capabilities … In the aftermath of the fire, the State and its communities face infrastructure damage, significant negative economic impact, as well as complex and multifaceted environmental damages.”[ii]
Ecosystem Services Valuation Provides Supporting Evidence
As the fire was yet burning, just 84% contained, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission enlisted Earth Economics to calculate the damages to ecosystem services in the burn area and the region. The resulting ecosystem services valuation identified the value of the ecosystem services that were lost to the Rim Fire at a worrisome $100 million to $736 million within the first year alone. These estimated losses amounted to nearly half of the annual value of environmental benefits provided within the Rim Fire perimeter before the fire.
In December 2013, Governor Brown filed a disaster recovery appeal with President Obama, incorporating evidence from this ecosystem services valuation to build the case for declaring the Rim Fire a natural disaster. Earth Economics’ comprehensive analysis provided strong economic evidence of the scope of damage and revealed an urgent need for disaster recovery funding. President Obama approved the appeal, signing off on disaster relief for Tuolumne County, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the State of California, and affected businesses and citizens.[iii] Since the disaster declaration, areas affected by the Rim Fire have received a total of $21 million in federal disaster assistance through FEMA and $70 million through the National Disaster Resilience Competition sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.[iv]
Photo Credit: USDA via Flickr