It can be tempting to think that the recent wildfire disasters in communities across the West were unlucky, one-off events, but evidence is accumulating that points to a trend.
In a new study, we found a 246% increase in the number of homes and structures destroyed by wildfires in the contiguous Western U.S. between the past two decades, 1999-2009 and 2010-2020.
This trend is strongly influenced by major fires in 2017, 2018, and 2020, including destructive fires in Paradise and Santa Rosa, California, and in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State. In fact, in nearly every Western state, more homes and buildings were destroyed by wildfire over the past decade than the decade before, revealing increasing vulnerability to wildfire disasters.
DAVE WINNACKER stood on a hill in Northern California as flames devoured the houses below him. The Alameda County Fire Department division chief had fought wildfires before, but the 2017 North Bay Fires felt different. A sense of helplessness overcame him as he watched them burn.
“I had engines assigned to them,” he says. “But you couldn’t stop it.”
A former Marine (and now a fire chief in the Bay Area’s Moraga-Orinda Fire District), Winnacker was one of more than 10,000 firefighters who battled the infernos, which raged for three weeks. The blaze tore through a quarter-million acres, killed 44 people, and destroyed over 6,000 homes. At times, it spread at a rate of one football field every three seconds. The damage totaled $13 billion, a new U.S. record that would fall the following year.
More proof that you’re never too small to make a difference: Six-year-old Owen Colley from Hingham, Massachusetts, is making clay koalas to help animals affected by the Australian bushfires, and has already raised over $240,000 Australian dollars.
Owen’s mother Caitlin told CNN her son had been upset when he learned of Australia’s bushfires, and particularly their impact upon the country’s wildlife. Owen’s father Simon grew up in Sydney, and he himself spent a few months there as a toddler, so he felt “a pull to Australia.”
This week, Californians got two helpings of bad news, as Pacific Gas & Electric shut off the power for some residents to try and cut down on wildfires, even as a blaze broke out and displaced thousands in the San Fernando Valley. (The electricity kept flowing to Silicon Valley’s tech companies, though.) Meanwhile, it was snowing in Montana; go figure. Relatedly, there were multiple protests (and multiple arrests) around the world led by action group Extinction Rebellion, which is calling on the media to do more reporting on climate change. Elsewhere, people are upset that Ellen DeGeneres is hanging out with George W. Bush, associates of President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani were arrested and charged with campaign finance violations, and it looks like Brexit won’t be an utter disaster after all. With all of this going on, it’s surprising anyone had the energy to pretend to be upset over how much US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez paid for a haircut or enjoy Senator Elizabeth Warren’s snarky comeback to a question about same-sex marriage. You guys, so much happened last week. It’s time we unpacked it all.