What You Need to Know About the California Camp Fire

The Camp Fire, named after Camp Creek Road near where it originated, has been burning since November 8, 2018. It is the worst wildfire in California’s history; this is not simply a state tragedy, but a national one. Furthermore, it is one that speaks to the unmeasured cost of climate change, which includes damage to environmental resources, expenditure of emergency resources, loss of built capital, loss of lives, and adverse impacts to long-term health.

The Camp Fire is the deadliest California wildfire on record, with over 70 individuals confirmed dead, and hundreds still missing. The next deadliest wildfire in California history was in 1933 and saw the loss of 29 lives. It has also been the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, with the loss of over 15,000 structures so far. The next most destructive wildfire saw the destruction of 5,636 structures. Over 100,000 people have been displaced.

Meanwhile, the smoke caused by the fire have led to long stretches of time where nearby areas, including the extremely populous city of Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area, have experienced some of the worst air quality in the world. Just a few days ago, the smoke could be seen as far away as New York City. Likely, this will lead to a ‘generation of lung problems’ due to early-life exposure to the harmful particulates in the air.

Map showing the movement of smoke across the United States. Photo Credit: NOAA

The ‘New Abnormal’

This is only one of eight active fires currently burning in the state. In the year-to-date summary, 872,786 acres under Cal Fire’s jurisdiction burned. This is a 175% increase from acres burned last year during the same time period (316,774 acres). The increase from the 5-year average for this time interval is even more dramatic; between 2012 and 2017 for this duration, Cal Fire lost an annual average of only 231,619 acres.

Trends indicate that this is the ‘new abnormal’ rather than an anomaly. Driven by climate change, the average temperatures in California have been rising over the last century. Furthermore, California has experienced a number of dry years in the last decade. This relationship has been explored more fully in 538’s post on ‘Why California’s Wildfires are so Destructive‘, which also displays seasonal patterns of dryer and hotter conditions.

Graphs showing relative amounts of precipitation and temperature to the state’s average. Source: The Public Policy Institute of California

Additionally, these climate patterns have led to a record loss of trees; 129 million trees died due to drought and bark beetles in 2017. This, in turn, creates more readily-available fuel.

All of these factors indicate that we need to be more considerate about where and how we are building human developments. The world is experiencing more extreme weather events, and this means that we need to spend our resources smarter and more effectively to create homes and communities that are more resilient to the increasing numbers of record breaking disasters. We need to adjust our building practices across the country to account not just for the events of today, but for the ones we foresee as being possible in a future defined by climate change.

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Featured Image: Satellite image of the Camp Fire taken the first day it began to burn. Photo credit: NASA Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager

About the Author: Nora Schwaller is a licensed architect and a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Department of City and Regional Planning. At UNC, she concentrates on housing and community development with a focus on resilience and disaster recovery. In this area, she is most interested in the effect of disasters on communities, population displacement, and tipping points for settlement abandonment. Prior to returning to grad school, she worked for an architecture firm in San Francisco, focusing on municipal projects such as fire stations.