California has a lot of fires; it’s a pretty dry state. The increasing frequency of devastating blazes such as those currently raging to the north of Los Angeles is leading to unsurpassed human and economic loss.
Climate change proponents are quick to identify California’s prolonged droughts and wildfires as direct evidence that they are right. They may have an argument. But the destruction and fatalities caused by natural disasters across the world today are just as much about population growth and poor planning as they are about environmental factors, not to mention things beyond human control.
Prior to this week’s Camp Fire, which has so far resulted in at least 42 fatalities, the deadliest inferno in California’s history started at Griffith Park, Los Angeles in October 1933.
A particularly barren summer had led to an excess of dry brush in the park, which gangs of workers from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were hired to clear. On the 3rd October a small fire broke out in the park and quickly spread, with the inexperienced workers press-ganged into acting as emergency firemen.
Poorly planned backfires and inadequate firebreaks effectively trapped dozens of men in a swirling torrent of flame that was worsened by strong winds. Despite being brought under control relatively quickly by the emergency services, the Griffith Park inferno had claimed at least 29 lives.
Strong winds are currently hampering rescue efforts in California. No matter what the firefighting technology, the federal aid granted and the pre-emptive mitigation measures, a stiff breeze will exacerbate catastrophe.
The bodies were laid in a row on a concrete floor under a huge canvas shroud. Most were so badly burned that they could not be identified, except by their belongings, which were kept in an old apple crate.
As in 1933, macabre tales are being told today, with people found burnt to cinders in their cars or trapped in the rubble of their incinerated homes. When nature ‘wins’ the consequences are never pretty.
It is unfortunate that the California fires are being used for political point-scoring and ‘I told you so’ jibes when all that should have been considered from the outset was a unified and comprehensive response to an inordinately difficult situation. Repercussions and recrimination can wait.
These things happen – as pointedly obvious as it seems to say – and the exact circumstances of such a disaster will never be the same and can never be predicted. A dose of realism is required; we are not all-conquering and we will never know the future.