The still-burning Carr Wildfire near Redding CA has incinerated over 164,000 acres, 1080 homes and killed seven people. Among them, two young children, ages 5 and 4, trapped at home with their great grandmother without a car. Crying desperately by cell phone to their great grandfather who was returning from a medical appointment, they begged him to come get them. He could not find a way through the flames. The three perished, wrapped in each other’s arms.
A separate Mendocino Complex Fire is now the largest in state history. Last year, CA’s most devastating fire ever tore through Sonoma, Napa, and Lake Counties, causing at least 22 deaths and burning more than 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa alone. The smell of smoke and unhealthy air quality spread south and west, blanketing the entire Bay Area for nearly a week, causing flares of illnesses in people with heart and lung problems. Five of the most destructive fires in CA history have occurred in the past four years.
Fire has always been an indelible feature of the western US, but the increasing numbers and intensity of wildfires are part of a pattern of extreme weather events throughout the world. Unprecedented heat, drought, and deadly fires have ravaged Europe this summer, while relentless rains caused dangerous flooding in the eastern US. Homeowners and cleaning professionals are busy trying to clean up toxic mold that blossomed in flooded buildings. The monsoon in SE Asia is unusually strong resulting in deaths, displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and severe damage to roads, bridges, dams, and power stations. This news is grim but should not be a surprise. Climate scientists long ago predicted a pattern of more severe storms, floods, and droughts, temperature extremes, and increases in mosquito, tick, and flea-borne illnesses directly linked to climate change.
Climate-related extreme weather events can destroy infrastructure, cause injury, illness, disruption in medical treatment, exacerbation of chronic disease, population displacement, and adverse mental health effects. These health impacts significantly increase burdens on health care and public health institutions attempting to respond to the needs of increasingly vulnerable populations. People driven from their homes by climate-related changing weather patterns and lack of adequate food and water become environmental refugees, often searching in vain for a place that welcomes them.
In this issue of the Networker, SEHN’s Kayhla Cornell offers sound, practical advice for disaster planning and preparedness—anticipating and preventing avoidable harm—while building resilience. Many people have already learned the value of these tips through painful experiences from which they are still trying to recover. It’s also increasingly clear that more and more of us will one day need to put our preparedness plans into action. But sadly, unless we—all of us, but especially promoters of fossil fuel combustion—reverse course quickly, stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while drawing down the excesses already released, disaster planning and preparedness will need to move to an entirely new level as more planetary vulnerabilities are revealed in tragic, local stories.