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Paradise Lost: Coping With The Aftermath Of California’s Deadliest Fires

Last year, California’s fire season was the worst on record, both in terms of loss of life and destruction of property. In keeping with a national pattern of increasingly severe disasters, this year’s California fire season has shattered the previous ceiling, claiming more than 84 lives, with another 800 still unaccounted for. Entire communities have been wiped out, including the idyllic town of Paradise, California. The ashen scenes are reminiscent of nuclear tests. In all, the 2018 California fire season burned approximately 1.7 million acres (650,000 hectares) of land. More than 15,000 structures have been destroyed in apocalyptic scenes of ash, rubble and cinder, where the prospects of community reconstruction for all but the wealthiest victims, may prove to be a line too far.

What is happening in the U.S.? Are these so called “wild” fires part of a natural tendency exacerbated by not raking leaves or nature’s response to an increasingly arid west coast, where the boundaries of the natural world and human habitation have been strained? It seems there is enough evidence to suggest the latter doomsday scenario that climate scientist have been warning the world about. Indeed, even California’s governor, Jerry Brown, acknowledged as much in making an impassioned case that human adaptation and resilience in California will cost hundreds of billions in the face of a new and devastatingly painful normal. This pattern appears on a national and global scale and the push of the Anthropocene against nature – a new geologic age defined by humanity – is causing an unnatural domino effect that is not easy to contain and harder still to spring back from. Like the Fort McMurray fires in Canada that were exacerbated by tar sands, the spark that ignited the California fires may have been caused by the electric utility, PG&E.

In the U.S. there have been more national disaster declarations in the last 18 years, than in the preceding 50. On average, the U.S. issued 39 disaster declarations from 1950 to 2000. Thereafter, timed to an increasingly warming world and the attendant erratic weather patterns, the rate of national disaster declarations spiked by more than 218% averaging 124 per year. Not only is the overall number of disasters increasing, each calendar year seems to be punctuated by a cluster of mega-disasters like this year’s record-breaking fires in California or last year’s record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, which saw not one, but three massive hurricanes sowing nothing but havoc in their path. As we near the close of 2 decades since the year 2000, one thing is evident, humanity is facing its direst challenges yet in the face of climate change. When households, businesses and communities need relief and reconstruction the most, capital is in retreat, first responders are overwhelmed and claims of long-term support are proving to be soft pledges. Raking leaves in California will be no more helpful than rolls of paper towel in Puerto Rico. Instead, preparedness and disaster readiness, must be a household and community-level responsibility.

The result is the beginning of a pattern that resembles the type of disaster fatigue and human displacement typically reserved for developing countries in the years prior to 2000. Ever since, the image of fortress nations that can shrug off the effects of climate change or ignore them in a form of modern beggar-thy-neighbor policy, has been washed away by rising flood waters, burnt asunder by fire and blown away by wind. Rather, the lost populations of iconic cities like New Orleans, which more than a decade since Hurricane Katrina has recovered 80% of its pre-hurricane population, are becoming an all too frequent reality. Puerto Rico’s post-Maria disaster displacement, on top of a decades’ worth of economic outmigration, may very well change the economic and cultural character of the island forever.

Against this complex backdrop, should Paradise be lost like so many of Puerto Rico’s hopes and aspirations or the pep in New Orleans’ jazzy step? Or should calls to build back better incorporate more than insurance indemnification, which is the principle to restore lost assets to their state prior to an event? California, compared to other U.S. states, has done the most to incorporate disaster resilience and climate readiness into code. Including far-reaching initiatives to wean its energy matrix off polluting fossil fuels, as well as solar-enabling its housing stock beginning in 2020. California’s insurance regulator, recognizing the double-jeopardy insurers face on their balance sheets, is also leading the world in driving industry divestments from dirty sectors, which contribute to the very risks insurers are struggling to shield against. These initiatives need to be accelerated, replicated and, critically, brought down to the household level where community and economic reconstruction ends, and resilience begins. Like a Phoenix, Californians will surely rise from the ashes, like Houstonians dried off from Hurricane Harvey’s floods. However, long term recovery and resilience depends on a whole-of-government and whole-of-society recognition that that we need to deal with climate change in the present tense.

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