Hell on Earth: California wildfire kills dozens

Red zone: The 8,000 firefighters tackling the blazes are helped by special water-dropping planes.

Will the blaze spark action on climate change? At least 42 have died in the deadliest inferno in California’s history. Scientists claim that global warming will only make wildfires worse.

California resident Sorrell Brink is one of the lucky ones. “I had to drive through the fire — it was awful. It was probably the most awful experience I will have in my life,” she told reporters. “[It was] like any apocalyptic movie I have ever seen.”

She was fleeing the small town of Paradise. Once home to 26,000 people, it is now incinerated. Dozens of residents died, some trapped in their homes, others caught in their cars as they tried to escape.

Statewide, 44 deaths have been confirmed, but hundreds more are still missing. Over 300,000 people have fled their homes. Many of their houses will be destroyed.

Three separate blazes still rage across the state. At one point, the biggest of the fires was surging through a football pitch-sized piece of land every second. In total, more than 400 square miles of land has been torched — an area bigger than New York City.

As the rescue effort continues, attention turns to two big questions: Why did the fires start? And how did they become so deadly?

Reports suggest that electrical companies were suffering technical malfunctions near the fires’ sources: it is possible that rogue sparks ignited the blaze.

Another crucial factor is recent weather. Lack of rain and strong winds have produced prime conditions for fires to spread. Furthermore, population growth near wooded areas has also raised the fire risk.

But behind all this is a deeper problem: global warming. As temperatures rise, moisture is sucked out of the soil, creating fire-friendly conditions. California’s seasonal rains are arriving later in the year too, extending the fire season.

For many, the consequences are clear. Of the 20 biggest wildfires in California’s history, 15 have occurred since the year 2000. The number of acres burned by wildfires across the American West has also doubled since the 1980s.

Scientist Daniel Swain claims the latest blazes are the most recent phase in a climate-driven “multi-year fire siege.”

Will these fires spark action against global warming?

Paradise Lost

Yes, some argue. Scientists are convinced: climate change is making wildfires worse. And this awful level of destruction is a consequence. These recent fires have already caused a record number of fatalities, with the final tally likely to rise. If this is not the tipping point that makes leaders take global warming seriously, what will?

Do not be so sure, others respond. President Donald Trump has already downplayed the role of climate change, controversially blaming forest management instead. Wildfires are complex events, and there are often human factors involved too, from expanding populations to poor fire safety. This warning will not be heeded.

You Decide

  1. Are wildfires the scariest type of natural disaster?
  2. Will climate change ever be brought back under control?

Activities

  1. Watch the footage of the fire by following the top link in Become An Expert. How do think the people in the video felt? Imagine you were in the same situation. Write a paragraph describing your experiences and emotions. Use as much rich descriptive language as possible.
  2. Do some research into how wildfires start and spread. Consider the human and environmental factors. Write a paragraph responding to this question: “Are wildfires man-made or natural?”

Some People Say...

“On climate change, we often don’t fully appreciate that it is a problem. We think it is a problem waiting to happen.”

Kofi Annan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
All three wildfires are yet to be totally brought under control. As of Monday evening, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire were both 30% contained, with the Hill Fire 85% contained. More than 8,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, with the dry and gusty conditions expected to continue through the week.
What do we not know?
We do not know exactly how the fires started, however, an investigation is ongoing. We also do not know the final death toll — hundreds of people are still missing and the number is expected to rise. We do not know when the fires will be brought under control, however, rain has been forecast for next week.

Word Watch

Apocalyptic
Relating to the end or destruction of the world.
Cars
See the top link in Become An Expert for an extraordinary video capturing a resident’s escape from the fire.
Blazes
The biggest and most deadly is the Camp Fire, burning in the north of the state. The others are the Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire. Wildfires are normally named after the area in which they started.
Population growth
Approximately 90% of wildfires are started due to human activity, either by accident or on purpose. Unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, and deliberate acts of arson are often to blame.
Fire season
Wildfires are common in the region and the fire service is experienced in dealing with them. Sometimes authorities start fires deliberately to clear debris and vegetation in a controlled way.
1980s
According to the paper, “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests,” by John T. Abatzoglou and A. Park Williams.