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Op-Ed: Who cashes in after a California wildfire?

A charred pickup truck and burned trees
The Caldor fire in 2021 destroyed Grizzly Flats, Calif. Removal of debris after such a fire, especially trees, can be lucrative for the cleanup companies.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Driving around parts of southern El Dorado County, you can’t miss the trucks. Everywhere near the areas ravaged by the 2021 Caldor fire that leveled the community of Grizzly Flats, you see semis hauling trees and Ford F-150s with their company logos.

Residents could understandably wonder: Who is paying for all this work? And who is profiting from it?

It’s mostly the federal government and insurance companies writing the checks, meaning taxpayers and insurance customers are footing the bill. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided access to more than $78 million in grants for emergency and permanent work, which includes debris and hazardous tree removal, emergency protective measures and restoring public infrastructure in the fire-ravaged areas.

To get government crews to clear ash, debris and hazardous trees off their land, property owners are required to sign a right-of-entry form that requests insured residents file a claim and agree that any proceeds of those claims go directly to the government, and in some cases the proceeds from debris removal may go to the private companies doing the work.

The economic costs of a disaster to state and local governments are much discussed, but less explored are the economic benefits to governments and contractors. There’s a line in the black comedy “Don’t Look Up” that seems applicable. A comet is heading toward Earth, and an astronomer has been trying to warn everyone that it has to be destroyed to save life on the planet. Still, her parents tell her: “We’re in favor of the jobs the comet will create.” The joke is a poke at business as usual, but in fact, climate-related disasters do create jobs.

Take logging, for example. Logging in federal and state parks is prohibited, and it is cost-prohibitive on residential property. Taking a single tree down can cost thousands of dollars. When a wildfire sweeps through an area, however, the burned trees that remain present many hazards, such as risk of falling on power poles or structures after the tree dies or the risk of adding fuel to another fire. As part of the debris removal process, these hazardous trees are removed.

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But determining which trees pose a hazard is entirely at the discretion of the government. Property owners waive all rights and claims to trees on their property by signing the form. This includes, as the form states, “non-fire damaged trees.” Trees, whether healthy or dead, are loaded onto trucks and transported to mills. This is referred to as “salvage logging” and is a controversial practice.

On federal land, the money made from timber sales goes back to the U.S. Forest Service. Between October 2021 and March 2022, the cut value of convertible timber harvested from the El Dorado National Forest, which sits within the Caldor fire burn area, was $459,336. But on state and private land, companies bidding for cleanup contracts can reduce bids by factoring in profit they anticipate from timber sales as a result of the cleanup. That ultimately means the government spends less, and contractors have a chance to make a profit.

All this work, from the clear-cutting to the milling, creates jobs. For every 1,000 fires, around 527 logging jobs are created, and over the last five years, there has been an average of a little more than 8,000 fires per year in California. These are not high-paying jobs, though. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median wage for a logging worker is $22.16 an hour. Workers on the ground in non-supervisory roles are more likely to be making $13.59 an hour.

Logging isn’t the only sector to see an increase in jobs during disaster recovery. A New Yorker article from 2021 detailed the lives of migrant workers laboring in cleanup and reconstruction. They are typically underpaid, if they are paid at all. The firms that hire the workers, on the other hand, have won huge state contracts.

The reality is that with fire season starting earlier every year, California is going to experience more disasters at the level of Caldor or the Camp fire. Survivors and workers need more protections during the recovery process. For residents, that means more communication from state and local governments about the cleanup process and also more control over timber recovered during the cleanup process. For some, revenue from salvaged lumber would provide resources to rebuild.

There is no denying that climate change is going to create more jobs in the disaster-recovery industry. But whether those are jobs with strong worker protections and fair pay depends on government reassessing its role in dealing with this consequence of a hotter planet.

Matt Sedlar is a graduate student in sociology at George Mason University whose research focuses on climate change and communities. He is also a data analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.


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