Mankind strives to make the most of what is given to us by the natural world, from building materials to our daily sustenance, yet we sometimes neglect to realize how much we take our environment for granted. In our fast-paced modern world we tend to focus on our goals and work towards achieving them without the need to focus on basic survival (unlike our ancestors), but it is all too easy to forget how vulnerable we truly are.
Many of us will hopefully be fortunate enough to avoid any kind of natural disaster during our lifetime, and even more of us are likely to live in parts of the world where nature is very rarely a threat to our livelihood and day-to-day existence. We all can find solace in enjoying the natural wonders that surround us, whether that be from a walk in the woods or a trip to the beach, and the true majesty of nature is something which will always astound and amaze us in equal measure. For the people of California, however, the fine balance between beauty and danger in nature is never brought into focus more viciously than when the landscapes are ravaged by intense wildfires.
Over the course of history there have been numerous recorded outbreaks of wildfires across the US, yet, fortunately, it is relatively rare for these fires to cause a large number of deaths. In and around the state of California, the dry seasons bring the perfect conditions for fires to begin and often this combines with wind conditions to enable a vicious and rapid spread of the flames. Once a fire begins it is a race against time for the authorities to attempt to contain the blaze, but this is not always possible and when disaster strikes it can sometimes catch people completely unprepared and leave them fighting for their lives as they try to escape. While many of these fires result in huge cost implications for the communities they hit, and the loss of personal possessions for many, the quick response of the rescue teams and the people they serve often results in minimal loss to life. Sadly, this is not always the case.
At the beginning of this year, there were a few recorded outbreaks of fire which were recognised as the most deadly in California. At the end of the Great Depression, a fire in Griffith Park (which was believed to have been started by a carelessly discarded cigarette) cost the lives of at least 29 people. What surprised many about this particular event was the fact that the fire itself only spread over an area covering 47 acres and yet cost so many lives. Once an investigation was conducted it became clear that many of the firefighters who helped to tackle the blaze were inexperienced and it is believed that this lead to numerous deaths as they found themselves trapped by the fire and lost in the smoke. The exact death-toll still remains unclarified. Almost 60 years later, in 1991, a tunnel fire destroyed almost 3,000 structures and resulted in 25 deaths over its duration. Nobody could have predicted that in October of this year California would fall victim to the deadliest fire in its recorded history.
On October 8th, 2017, reports came in of a wildfire. The emergency services leapt into action and began working on controlling its spread, whilst simultaneously communicating with communities who were deemed to be in danger. This initial fire was driven further afield by the dry, arid season and general high temperatures in combination with ideal wind conditions that created a tinderbox of trouble. Over the next 12 days, the fire burned relentlessly and mercilessly devoured everything it came into contact with. The 70 Km/h winds drove the flames on faster than they could be contained and constantly changed direction to leave many unable to predict their expected trajectory. At its peak, the fire caused smoke clouds which spread all the way to San Francisco (50 miles away). Almost 6,000 structures were decimated over the duration of the fire leaving in its wake more than a billion dollars in damages for people to contend with. Businesses were destroyed in a matter of moments and some of California’s blossoming industries were utterly decimated by the spreading flames. In particular, the well-established vineyards of many wineries were wiped out, causing millions in lost revenue, along with numerous cannabis farms which were just beginning to find their feet after decades of prohibition. Some growers will find this a very difficult situation to recover from, while others may find that they have little left to reinvest to get their business back up and running. Add to that the number of people displaced by the blaze and it is clear that California has a huge tragedy to contend with.
What has caused the biggest shock to the watching world is the ever-increasing death toll of this year’s blaze. At the time of writing the confirmed number of deaths was approaching 50, meaning that this has been confirmed as the worst tragedy of its type on record, but the final number is likely to rise as rescue workers find themselves able to explore areas which are currently still classed as too dangerous to enter. Sadly, the majority of those who lost their lives appear to be the elderly and inform who simply couldn’t escape from their impending doom. The thought of much-loved grandparents finding themselves trapped and alone in this situation is truly heart-breaking. Along with the elderly residents of these communities, the fire took the lives of people from all walks of life including at least one teenager who struggled to escape the growing inferno.
Throughout all this tragedy it is easy to forget how well we can come together in times of need. The sheer bravery of the rescue teams in the face of danger is awe-inspiring, especially when you consider that a large number of volunteers, fire crews from other areas and even prisoners who have been trained as firefighters as part of their employment programmes during their incarceration devoted themselves intensely to the safety of others in need. Now it is all about moving forward and helping these communities to get back on their feet. Boots are already on the ground from leading charities and neighbors are doing their best to support each other during the aftermath of this terrible event, but anyone, anywhere, can get involved if they would like to. Check out some of the fantastic crowdfunding pages that have been set up to help us all do our part.
Our hearts and minds go out to all affected by the events discussed in this article.