The devastating fire that burned Lahaina to the ground last week is now the deadliest US wildfire in modern history—and a worrying reminder of California’s own vulnerabilities. Californians are rightly very concerned about wildfires, placing them just behind water supply and drought in their list of the most important environmental issues facing the state, according to the July PPIC Statewide Survey. This week, as weather reports indicate that fire risk in the state is at its highest level so far this year, we take a closer look at Californians’ views of wildfire threat, their confidence in government’s readiness to respond to that threat, and their support for environmental policies related to climate change.
Majorities of Californians are worried about wildfires in their part of the state, calling them either a big problem (44%) or somewhat of a problem (34%). Just 21% say they’re not much of a problem. Perceptions that wildfires are a big problem are more prevalent in the Inland Empire, Central Valley, and San Francisco Bay Area than in other regions. Women are more likely than men to view the threat of wildfires as a big problem where they live.
When it comes to feeling a personal or economic threat from wildfires in their part of the state, Californians are a bit more divided, with 30% calling this threat very serious, 36% calling it somewhat serious, and 34% saying it’s not too serious. Inland Empire and Central Valley residents are more likely than others to say that wildfires are a very serious threat to their personal and economic wellbeing. Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans are somewhat more likely than whites to hold this view.
Should disaster strike, do Californians feel like their government is ready to step in and help? Just 32% say that they have a great deal of confidence in the government to respond to wildfires in their part of California. The majority (53%) say that they have only some, and 14% have hardly any. At least half express “only some” confidence in government readiness across all regions and demographic groups. The share who say that they have a great deal of confidence varies across partisan groups and declines as income levels rise.
Despite their skepticism about government readiness—or perhaps because of it, along with the perceived threat—Californians want their state government to do more. Sixty-two percent say it is very important for the state government to pass regulations and spend money now to prepare for the effects of climate change, such as flooding, storms, and wildfires. Majorities across regions and demographic groups hold this view, while partisans are divided.
Moreover, Californians are eager to roll up their sleeves and get involved in environmental policy. Sixty-eight percent of likely voters are in favor of the state establishing a citizens’ assembly on environmental issues, according to the July survey. Remarkably, there is solid majority support for this idea across partisan and demographic groups as well as state regions.
Furthermore, Californians appear to be ready to put their money on the line to address environmental issues. With the legislature contemplating several multi-billion-dollar state bond measures for climate change programs, we asked about voters’ support for a proposed $6 billion bond measure (SB 638). (Several other state bond measures are also under consideration, including AB 305, AB 1567, and SB 867).
At the time of the survey, 65% of likely voters said they would vote yes and 34% said they would vote no on SB 638. Majorities would vote yes across regions and age, education, gender, income, and racial/ethnic groups. Partisans were deeply divided (83% Democrats, 32% Republicans, 67% independents).
Californians’ interest in government action on the environment makes sense at a time when majorities believe that climate change is contributing to wildfires (75% yes, 25% no)—as well as heat waves, floods, and drought. It remains to be seen what else California’s leaders can do to help their communities feel more confident if and when the worst happens. Stay tuned to the PPIC Statewide Survey as we continue to track views on California’s environmental challenges and residents’ trust in government.