Why you should care
Because this catastrophic event is producing far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.
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WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Seventy-seven people have been confirmed dead in Northern California’s ongoing Camp Fire — now the state’s deadliest ever single wildfire — and 993 remain missing. While authorities are still investigating the cause and location of the initial blaze, which virtually incinerated the town of Paradise, more than 5,600 firefighters (and 24 helicopters) are busy battling it. President Donald Trump suggested the tragedy was a result of poor forest management, sparking a debate over whether bureaucracy, climate change or both are to blame.
Why does it matter? Having already destroyed more than 10,300 homes, the Camp Fire — which firefighters expect to extinguish by the end of the month — has now been at least 65 percent contained. But its effects are both devastating and long-lasting. At one point, some areas of Northern California experienced the worst current air quality in the world due to the fires, prompting organization Mask Oakland to hand out more than 4,000 face masks over the course of four days. Some relief is expected by Tuesday in the form of up to four inches of rain, which could help clear the air of hazardous particulates, though that does little to change one daunting fact: Recovery from the fire will likely take years.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Bad management? Fifty-seven percent of California’s forests are federally managed, around 40 percent are in private hands and the remaining 3 percent are overseen by state and local agencies. Some experts have dismissed suggestions that any of these entities are to blame, noting that the initial fires started in open areas and were fueled by environmental conditions such as high winds and a lingering drought. But others say the surrounding environment — such as the thickness of forest, an issue that could be mitigated — should be taken into closer account when considering long-term fire prevention. Either way, one thing remains clear: In California, forest fires are only getting worse.
A costly affair. Insurance analyses have estimated losses for the year at between $4 and $7 billion, which is far less than last year’s $13 billion. But California lawmakers, as well as strict state regulations, are likely to keep companies from hiking insurance rates to offset those costs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service estimates it’s spending 12 times what it did in 1985 to battle fires across the country. More troubling, though, is the human cost. In California, fatalities have been steadily rising every wildfire season: 2 in 2014, 9 in 2015, 8 in 2016, 47 in 2017 and 94 confirmed so far this year.
The bigger picture. The Camp Fire has surpassed what was previously the deadliest fire in California history: Los Angeles’ 1933 Griffiths Park Fire, which claimed 29 lives. But it’s far from the deadliest in U.S. history. In 1918, 450 people died in a Minnesota blaze, and in 1871 Wisconsin’s Peshtigo fire killed at least 1,500 — and perhaps as many as 2,500 people — while burning an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
But the U.S. isn’t alone. Europe is another hotbed for forest fires, particularly around the Mediterranean. Greece experienced deadly blazes earlier this year, which 91 people died. President Trump recently cited Finland’s successful efforts at firefighting, suggesting their track record is down to raking forest floors. Instead, observers say, it’s due to an effective early detection system and a vast network of forest roads that provide firefighters easy access while preventing fires from spreading. Still, forestry experts caution that Finland’s climate differs vastly from that of California’s.
WHAT TO READ
California’s Forest Management Isn’t the Problem, by Jennifer Lu in Popular Science
“There are two other key reasons why California is the perfect tinderbox. One is that the state has a growing number of people living in or near fire-prone areas. The second is that California has a naturally dry climate, made worse by climate change…”
California’s Paradise Lost, by the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal
“Relentless winds and low air moisture make California’s fires harder to contain while development is putting more people in danger. But also fueling the fires is an overgrown government bureaucracy that frustrates proper forest management.”
WHAT TO WATCH
California Wildfires: Drone Footage Shows Paradise Devastation
“This is what is left of Paradise.”
Watch on BBC News on YouTube:
Finnish President Niinistö denies discussing ‘raking’ with Trump
“The fire situation in Finland is really uncomparable, completely uncomparable, with what’s going on in California.”
Watch on Euronews on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Fighting fire with fire. Controlled burns, in which fires are intentionally set to thin out dense vegetation in forests and make them less susceptible to massive wildfires, have been used in the U.S. since before it was colonized, including more recently in California. But they’re expensive (though less expensive than fighting a real wildfire) and few people have the expertise to oversee the process — so the debate continues over whether controlled burns are a viable tactic.