On the streets of Paradise, California, acres of brick, metal, and ash lie scattered across suburban blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see. Even months after the worst wildfire in California history ripped through this small town, homeowners have only recently begun to return, most met by the heart-wrenching sights of their lives reduced to small piles on the blackened concrete.
Paradise is the area worst affected by the fire now known as “the Camp Fire.” Ninety percent of the town was lost to the blaze, with 14,000 of the 19,000 structures reportedly destroyed and almost all of the 86 reported fatalities being in Paradise. While California Department of Forest Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is still investigating the causes of the fire, they think an unsafe electrical infrastructure at Pacific Gas & Electric caused the blaze. The fire, which began in the early hours of November 8, stole the livelihoods of thousands, leaving all but a few scrambling for help and guidance in its aftermath.
Climate reports published by National Geographic and the Union of Concerned Scientists credit climate change as a large contributor to this trend of disastrous fires. Increasing temperatures and widespread drought have left California’s landscape extremely arid, and with such a dry ecosystem, anything from a camping accident to a lightning strike could set off a ruinous blaze.
Just six hours after the Camp Fire began its rampage, another blaze, the Woolsey Fire, destroyed 96,949 acres of land and 1,500 structures in Los Angeles County, 436 miles away. Cal Fire suspects the electric supply company Southern California Edison is responsible for the Woolsey Fire due to poorly managed equipment. The flames took the residences of celebrity singers Miley Cyrus and Neil Young and drove others—among them Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, and Rainn Wilson—to flee their properties in fear of a similar result.
Smoke from both the Camp and Woolsey Fires traveled thousands of miles, bringing serious health risks such as respiratory infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia to the surrounding communities and hazy skies to places as far away as New York City. In San Francisco, 150 miles from the epicenter of the Camp Fire, smoke clouded the city for weeks after the blaze was 100 percent contained. The air quality index (AQI) registered “very unhealthy,” and just being in the city for one day was compared to smoking half a pack of cigarettes in amount of inhaled particulate matter (PM), a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air like dust, dirt, and smoke. Inhalation of PM has been linked to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function. In California, schools were closed, flights were canceled, and residents were strongly urged to stay inside.
Last July, the Mendocino Complex Fire destroyed nearly 460,000 acres of land near the Mendocino National Forest north of San Francisco. It broke records as the largest California fire since data was first collected in 1889, surpassing even the Thomas Fire, which burned close to 300,000 acres north of Los Angeles one year prior. In fact, 15 of the 20 largest fires in California’s history have occurred since the year 2000.
—Eco-Rep Pierce Haley