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California Wildfires: the forgotten natural hazard?

Last updated: Jan 30th, 2019

In recent years, wildfires in California have been getting worse; larger, more frequent and more destructive. In terms of loss of life and damage to property, 5 of the state’s most destructive fires have all taken place in the last 10 years.

Historically, wildfire season started in summer and ran into early autumn, but now, the risk is believed to be year round. Many experts have pointed to climate change as being responsible, which has resulted in higher temperatures, lower humidity and changes in wind and rainfall patterns.

The Camp Fire, which continues to burn, has swept through a swathe of northern California and described as the most destructive fire in the history of the state. Travelling at high speeds, blown on by 50 mph winds and leaving residents with little time to escape, the heat and intensity has so far destroyed 9,700 homes across 150,000 acres.

The death toll currently stands at 77, with the town of Paradise, 175 miles from San Francisco, being the worst hit. Some 52,000 people have been forced to evacuate and remain in temporary accommodation or shelters. When they will be able to return and what is left of their homes remains to be seen.


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Smoke blown across northern California has triggered public health warnings due to very unhealthy levels of particulates in the air, and there have been mass closures of schools, universities and businesses, as residents are warned to stay indoors with windows closed.

Climate change, the movement of more and more people away from urban centres to more rural locations and development in fire prone areas – of homes constructed of combustible material such as wood – has seen the risk of devastating wildfires increase. Despite this, there remains a lack of public awareness and an underappreciation of the risk faced by communities due to wildfires.

California is no stranger to natural hazards; threatened by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and landslides, as well as wildfires. Communities are well versed in what to do in the event of an earthquake and perhaps this is a model that could be followed to prepare for wildfires in the future, to improve evacuation planning, education and warning systems and prevent any repetition of the tragedy currently unfolding in California.