The death toll from the Northern California wildfires earlier this week was 41, and is expected to increase. Dozens of people are missing. The Griffith Park Fire in 1933 killed 29 people, and until last week that was the record for California wildfires.
It’s not just California that’s on fire. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that, as of last Friday, more than 51,000 thousand wildfires have burned nearly 9 million acres nationwide. And that’s just since the first of the year. There is very little hope those numbers will stay where they are.
With 40 or more killed, hundreds missing and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed, another cold fact is that these fires are breaking the bank. The federal government has already spent more than $2.7 billion fighting wildfires, and the state of California has basically chewed through more than half its $469-million emergency fund for this budget year, which began only three months ago.
These disasters are the kind that continue to cause damage long after the last ember is snuffed out. The California and national economies are taking a major hit from this year of natural disasters.
Think about it. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria inflicted staggering wounds on major American cities and on the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the island of St. John and others. Too much rain fell there, and not enough where those thousands of wildfires have been raging.
Years of drought in western states isn’t helping. There is just too much dry fuel in our forests, and all it takes is a lightning strike or some thoughtless person tossing a cigarette butt or leaving a smoldering campfire unattended to start the next costly conflagration.
You can blame climate change — or more specifically, global warming — if you choose, but human wants and needs are also contributing to this mess. The U.S. Forest Service estimates there are about 43 million homes and other structures in or near forests, further increasing the risk of massive human life and property losses.
Financial experts reckon the Northern California wildfires alone will deliver an $85-billion blow to the California and national economies. At one time last week there were more than 100,000 evacuees in just three Northern California counties, and most of them will return to burned-out shells where their homes once stood.
This doesn’t take into account the businesses burned, which means a loss of jobs for what could turn out to be thousands of Americans. Killer hurricanes and wildfires are the types of disasters that ripple though and can severely damage a nation’s economy.
There will be more discussion about the overall, long-term economic impacts of our disasters when the shock of being nearly blown away by a huge storm, and running from a raging fire finally abates.
All of which begs for more attention from the federal government, which is already being blistered for its lack-luster response to Hurricane Maria’s aftermath in Puerto Rico.
Some members of Congress are trying. Two bills are before Congress that would shift wildfires into the same category as big hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters so that firefighting money could be taken from the nation’s Disaster Relief Fund.
That needs to happen, because it is abundantly clear that such disasters are likely to get worse, more frequent and devastating.
Whatever the reasons, our planet is changing, and what once were small, isolated events are becoming massive human disasters. We are known for our ability to adapt, and that is what we must do, because the costs of not adapting are too high to pay.