Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 536, 28 July 2022

The US: Wildfires in California, again
Rashmi Ramesh

In the news
On 22 July, the Oak fire started near Midpines at the foothills of Sierra Nevada and has blown out of proportions, growing into one of California’s biggest wildfire incidents of 2022. Despite firefighting efforts, the fires have engulfed more than 15,600 acres, displaced nearly 6000 people, and are few miles away from the Yosemite National Park.
 
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) termed the spread ‘explosive’ and said: “the growth of this fire is pretty amazing, given the fact of how quickly we had resources here.” More than 2000 firefighters backed by aircrafts and bulldozers are on the ground to try and douse down the fire. The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency for Mariposa County, allowing for the supply of additional resources to respond to the wildfires.
 
Issues at large
First, recurring wildfires in California. The current incident is not the first, as Californian landscape is prone to wildfires due to natural reasons such as vegetation, wind patterns and the bark beetles that are known to feed on the trees, making them vulnerable to fire. However, in recent years, the scale of these fires has increased manifold. According to Cal Fires, eight of California’s 10 largest fires and 12 of largest 20 have occurred in the past five years.
 
Second, wildfires across the globe. Alaska, an Arctic state of the United States is experiencing wildfires due to record-breaking temperatures. The intense heatwave in Europe is resulting in fires across Greece, France, Spain, and Portugal, and thousands have been displaced.
 
Third, the link to climate change. The rise in temperature increased the rate of evaporation, leading to more moisture drawn from soil and vegetation. The excessive dryness, therefore, becomes a conducive ground for wildfires to spread. In other words, warmer temperatures pushed by climate change increase the risk of fires. The UNEP report titled “Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires”, February 2022, notes that the extreme global fires may increase up to 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by 2050, and 50 per cent by 2100. Highlighting the link to climate change, the report confirmed that “wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons.”
 
In perspective
First, learning from past experiences. There is a need to learn from the previous disasters and rebuild in a better and more resilient manner. As more population in the US moves out of the urban areas close to wilderness, it is important to implement stringent regulations for building/rebuilding infrastructure. In 2008, California laid down rules for building homes in fire-prone areas, including a “defensible space” without vegetation around the structure, access to water as an emergency measure and other minimum standards for fire-resistant construction.
 
Second, the implementation of environmental-friendly policies is the only way forward. Leviathan-like disasters are causing irreparable damage across the world. As climate change narrows in, the scale of disasters increases proportionally, effectively closing in on time for climate action and the ability to cope with disasters.

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