Unique Destruction: The Camp Fire Shows What the Beginning of Climate Change Looks Like

By Matthew D. Batista

I. The Camp Fire

Bad Signs. The Mendocino Complex fire is the largest wildfire by area in California history. The Mendocino and Carr fires together burned nearly 650,000 acres. Fast forward six weeks and move south less than 100 miles, and now, both the most destructive fire, by structure count, and most deadly fire in California gripped the state. The Camp Fire is considered the deadliest fire anywhere in the United States in 100 years.

Picture1By 9:00 AM or so on Thursday, November 8, I started receiving images from friends and family in Chico, CA, showing the all too familiar orange glow in the sky. Think “The Upsidedown” from the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” but orange. A few hours later, it became apparent that this fire was serious. I arrived at a ghostly landscape the next evening to meet with evacuated family members.

A Uniquely Destructive Fire. Rain mercifully fell at long last in Northern California during the week of Thanksgiving. The rain helped fire crews contain the blaze at 95% as of the morning of November 24. As of the same day, 153,336 acres burned and 18,733 buildings, including 13,954 residences, were destroyed. There were 84 people who lost their lives, 3 firefighters were injured, and 475 people remain missing. Nearly 6,000 firefighters, 23 helicopters, and 630 fire engines fought the fire. The cost of such a response will be staggering.

The air quality in Northern California for much of the last two weeks has been rated as the worst air quality in the entire world. Air quality has frequently hovered in the “hazardous” category.  As of now, for all intents and purposes, the towns of Paradise, CA and Magalia, CA no longer exist, and Northern California continues to breathe in toxic, hazardous air. This fire was unlike any previous in the region. Given the wind conditions, dried vegetation, little rainfall, and overall nature of the forested region, the Camp Fire was able to grow by a football field every second at one point. Melissa Schuster, a council member in Paradise, CA, accurately described this as no ordinary wildfire, but a “firestorm.”

Picture3Just one main road leads in and out of the town of Paradise, CA, making evacuation down the hill nearly impossible. Fire tornadoes danced faster than residents could flee. Terrifying and often heroic stories have emerged in the aftermath. Many patients were mid-surgery at the Feather River Hospital when the hospital began to burn. The heat was so intense that tires were exploding and burning as people tried to evacuate in their vehicles. People dove into streams to avoid flames. For some, their final resting places were their vehicles as they attempted to flee. For others, they never even made it outside their homes.

Displaced People. Most of the 35,000 or so residents of Paradise and the surrounding affected areas are now homeless. The city of Chico, CA and other surrounding cities are now refugee centers. People are living in makeshift tent cities, out of their vehicles, or in one of the under-staffed and over-burdened shelters. Secondary concerns additionally affect these displaced people including looting, the spread of norovirus, the closure of schools, an inability to get medical supplies and prescriptions, etc. Support has thankfully come in a variety of forms. Famous chef Guy Fieri has cooked meals for the displaced and for first responders for much of the last couple weeks. Butte College Alumnus and Chico, CA native Aaron Rodgers pledged a $1 million donation. Countless others have donated money, time, and goods to the evacuees. However, just because communities have become adept at being “strong” in the face of disaster, it does not negate the need for real climate action or justify a continued course of inaction.


Insurance Concerns. Dealing with insurers after a wildfire often comes as a secondary gut punch to victims. Delays in processing claims are frequent. Some delays are due to valid concerns such as a determination of the cause of the fire. Other delays are less valid. California requires that homeowner insurance policies include fire coverage, though terms vary by policy. Underinsurance is pervasive.

In response, in part, to Californians’ underinsurance problems, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 1797, requiring insurance companies to conduct a replacement cost estimate every other year. This law attempts to accurately reflect the value of the property should a homeowner’s claim need to be submitted. Commercial policies enjoy less regulatory protection. A growing concern, one that will undoubtedly be a critical factor in deciding whether to rebuild Paradise, CA and other similarly affected communities, is that insurers are beginning to leave the market all together. Those insurers who stay pass along costs to policyholders, increasing the already significant financial burden that is homeowner’s insurance in California.

II. Federal Government Response

The Trump Administration. President Trump, as has become commonplace in the aftermath of increasingly common natural disasters, fired off a series of non-sensical, misinformed, and cold tweets and statements. Climate change is obviously a myth, since according to a Presidential tweet, a cold spell in the Northeastern United States in November begs the question, “Whatever happened to Global Warming?” The President threw out claims of nobody thought this [the Camp Fire] could happen.”

This is clearly not the belief of most Californians who now deal with a near year-round fire season. The President says he wants a “great climate,” and in his mind, that means not diverting water to the Pacific Ocean, raking the forest, and correcting the “gross mismanagement” of forests in California. He additionally threatened to withhold federal funding. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke placed the blame on “radical environmentalists.” Both the President and Secretary Zinke are climate change deniers. The President’s responses drew criticism from a variety of California officials and firefighting unions.

III. The National Climate Assessment

U.S. Global Change Research Program. This agency is essentially a collection of federal officials and scientists from 13 separate agencies. Every four years, they release a congressionally mandated report called the National Climate Assessment. The national climate assessment mandate comes from the Global Change Research Act, signed into law during the George H.W. Bush administration. The newest report, coming on the heels of both the Camp Fire and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, reaches similar conclusions to previous reports, affirms some short-term projections, and provides additional economic projections for the cost of climate change. The report was set to be released in early December but was moved up to Black Friday.

The Report. The Fourth Climate Assessment answers the President’s Twitter question above. There are a few significant takeaways from the report. First, the economy is likely headed for tatters and it is likely to get continually worse. By 2090, climate change is expected to cost the United States economy $500 billion per year if emissions are not significantly curbed. That is equal to about twice of what the Great Recession cost the U.S. economy, but on an annual basis. Envisioned another way, it will be using the State GDP’s of Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Maine, Idaho, and Delaware to pay for the domestic costs of climate change.

Picture 5Another conclusion of the report is that things are going to get much worse. Many of the stories from the Camp Fire, many of them horrific, are just the start of a long-term trend. Droughts will get longer, temperatures will be hotter on average, forests will be drier, crops will fail in the Midwest, and hurricanes will grow stronger and hover longer. Fire season in California will be a year-round concern, and more towns like Paradise will cease to exist. Further, climate change will continue to be deadly. It is far from simply a nuisance. In addition to direct deaths, like those seen in the Camp Fire, continued emissions and wildfires will contribute to continued degradation of air quality. This will lead to steadily increasing rates of secondary deaths from poor air quality. Finally, the report unequivocally states that climate change is no longer some distant concern — it is here. This is what the start looks like.

The Human Concern. Of course, the real problem is humans and the aggregate unwillingness to do anything. The climate assessment also concludes, much like other reports such as the recent IPCC report, that we still have a chance to take climate change seriously and avoid the truly catastrophic consequences. However, the window is closing, and fast. Whatever your motivation in politics, you should want (and require) climate mitigation and adaptation policy. This is not just about a single fire in a small California town. It is about people’s lives, it is about preventing suffering, it is about an economy headed for disaster, and it is about much more. For yet another election cycle, climate change policy was largely absent from any serious political discussion, a critique of both major parties. We will just have to see whether Americans wish to continue playing with fire in 2020.

You can support those affected by the Camp Fire in multiple ways. To donate to the North Valley Community Foundation Camp Fire Relief Fund, go here.

To see aerial drone footage of the damage in Paradise, CA, watch this YouTube video.

To view an interactive map of the area and damage, click this map from Cal Fire.

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