Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on January 1, 2020.

That's Rich

Can the wealthy really avoid the impact of extreme natural events like wildfire?

A recent headline in the Financial Times seemed calculated to bring out the cynic in me: “Super-rich fortify against climate change and health risks.”

Apparently, the wisdom of the very wealthy calls for withstanding wildfires, pandemics, and other unpleasantness by armoring yourself with the most extreme, not to mention expensive, products and services the market has to offer. Worried that you may not survive a catastrophic extinction event holed up in your idyllic ski retreat? Simply jet off to South Dakota, where you can ride out the apocalypse for a year or more in one of 575 luxe underground bunkers, originally built by the military to store explosives and munitions. Or, you can establish yourself as a trendsetter among the one percent by glamorizing “prepping,” the adoption of extreme survival strategies that “used to be for people on the fringes,” according to another expert. If the chaos of life here at home threatens to overwhelm your refined sensibilities, a real estate service will happily sell you a secluded plot of land in New Zealand, where, apparently, nothing bad ever happens.

Such snake oil offers a sharp contrast to the smart, pragmatic, and affordable solutions being created by hundreds of thousands of people around the country who are engaged in a growing movement that champions community resilience and sustainability. Consider the achievements of the Montecito (California) Fire Protection District, a recent winner of a Wildfire Mitigation Award given annually and co-sponsored by NFPA. Instead of a magic pill intended for a few, the district spent 20 years improving its community-wide wildfire preparation and resilience at a total cost of less than $2 million. The return on this investment was evident in the Thomas Fire in late 2017. The district was able to withstand one of the largest and most destructive fires in state history, with no deaths and 500 homes still standing that might otherwise have been lost. It’s a terrific example of what can be achieved when a collective effort addresses a real-world problem head-on, with creativity and conviction.

If the Financial Times article had merely catalogued a few of the ludicrous “solutions” peddled to the rich, I could’ve had a good laugh and moved on. But it didn’t stop there. It attempted to build a thesis whereby the rich have the resources to flee and protect themselves physically, while the rest of us “must stay and suffer the consequences,” unable to do anything to help ourselves or mitigate the risk. Regarding wildfire, this fiction was supported by a bleak picture of the effects on “the poor,” including an increase in premature births and a drop in average birth weights among babies exposed to wildfire smoke. In the end, you’re either wealthy and able to buy your way out of trouble, or poor and left to suffer and die helplessly.

What a bunch of malarkey.

The reality is that all of us, rich and poor, inhabit the same leaky lifeboat when it comes to the impact of extreme events like wildfires. The rich may be able to run, if they choose, but they can’t hide. No corner of the planet is free from hazards or threats, and there is no simple solution to a complex problem like wildfire.

F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that “the rich are different than you and me.” Maybe. I have no doubt that a long-term collaboration like the one demonstrated by the Montecito Fire Protection District is a tougher sell than relocating to a plot of New Zealand pastureland. But smart marketers could also use the Montecito example to convince the affluent to invest in a more sustainable future—not only for themselves, but for all of us. At the very least, it would beat being cooped up in a South Dakota bunker. 


Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler