GP Insights # 413, 12 September 2020
On 10 September, officials confirmed that the wildfire in North California had claimed ten lives so far, and 16 people were yet to be traced. It is estimated that at least 20 people have been killed across the Californian state.
Favourable atmospheric conditions caused approximately 14000 lightning in a span of two days, resulting in one of the worst fires. Scu Lightning Complex (396,624 acres burnt), Lnu Lightning Complex (363,220 acres burnt), North Complex (252,534 acres burnt), Claremont-bear (252,178 acres burnt), Creek (175,893 acres burnt) are the five largest active fires in the state at present. Alongside California, states of Oregon and Washington are also battling massive wildfires.
What is the background?
First, the cause of wildfires. An intense clockwise high-pressure system that was responsible for high temperature and dry conditions in the Western parts of the US drew moisture from the Pacific tropical storm Fausto. This atmospheric condition resulted in thunderstorms and intense lightning activity. According to a Los Angeles Times report, the heat in the lower levels of troposphere evaporated the rain from thunderstorms before it could reach the surface, a phenomenon known as 'virga'. Therefore, an exceptionally dry season, coupled with thunderstorms and lightning with negligible rains is said to be the major cause of the wildfire.
Second, the spread across the world. 2019-20, has witnessed record-breaking temperatures during summers, unusually warm winter and relentless warming of oceans. Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, Arctic, Canada, US, Sahel, southern parts of Africa recorded wildfires at a large scale. Most of them occur in Africa and South America; they go unnoticed, probably because it is common to practise slash and burn technique.
Third, the link to climate change. Warmer temperatures cause excessive dryness. A rise in temperature implies a rise in the rate of evaporation, leading to more moisture drawn from soil and plants. Dry vegetation is usually more prone to fire. Dry weather also creates conditions conducive for the thriving of bark beetles which feed on and kill trees from within. Such dead trees are prone to fires. Climate change has resulted in an increase in the population of the beetles that destroy vegetation. While dry weather may be applicable to all the situations, there are region specific causes. For instance, wildfires in Southeast Asia are mostly caused by El-nino.
What does it mean?
First, the response of the State. Governor of Oregon opined that "this could be the greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state's history." The priority of the state is to evacuate the population living dangerously close to the areas affected, rescuing people from towns and villages which have been burned down, and most importantly control the fire. Though the scale of preparedness does not match the scale of the disaster, the terrain for the troops has been the biggest challenge. The mere size of the disaster has humbled any disaster management operation.
Second, the failure to learn from the past experiences. There is a need to learn from previous disasters and rebuild in a better and 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" with the absence of vegetation around the structure, access for water as an emergency measure and other minimum standards for fire-resistant construction. Such policies must be adopted in other states as well.
Third, 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 level of disasters will also increase. The ability of the cope up with it will reduce. Therefore, sustainable development and eco-friendly policies are the need of the hour.