It is a reminder of the power of fire: homes and bodies reduced to ash and bone; 31 people dead; hundreds missing; 3,500 buildings destroyed, 25,000 people evacuated. The deadliest week of wildfire in California history.
Yesterday, officials in that US state continued to come to terms with a series of simultaneous blazes that broke out on Sunday night in the heart of the popular wine country region. Residents and tourists from all over the world fled to shelters or camped out on beaches as choking smoke thickened. The smog drifted south into San Francisco, creating the worst air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area on record and forcing schools to close yesterday.
“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” said Sonoma County sheriff Robert Giordano. The conflagration was big enough to swallow New York City, growing to more than 300 square miles.
From our perch here in the hurricane-swept Caribbean, it might all seem surreal. But it is nevertheless a demonstration of the dangers we face come the return of the dry season. We have had our share of wildfires, some because of deliberate action, others due to recklessness.
Every year, our Northern Range is scarred. In some instances, fires are set by landowners in order to dispose of rubbish. This practice is too often done without the requisite permit from fire authorities. The death of forest ranger Keith Campbell is not forgotten. To date, no entity has faced a penalty – whether criminal or civil – for the well-documented string of breaches that culminated in his tragic death.
As California shows, in the right conditions, a fire can cause death. And it can snowball into an almost uncontrollable force. US officials have had to dispatch more than 8,000 firefighters to battle the blaze. Manpower and equipment were brought in from as far away as Australia.
There is the lingering question of the capacity of our own Fire Service as well as that entity’s ability to function effectively. Judging from recent experiences, while much headway has been made, the Service is still fettered by poor infrastructure as well as questions of maladministration.
A $150 million fire last month saw complaints raised over the Fire Service’s inability to bring the blaze under control quickly enough due to a sporadic supply of water.
In the same month, a high court judge also deemed an administrative action by the office of the Chief Fire Officer to be unlawful. The Fire Service had sought to make a business owner – whose property was damaged by a nearby fire – pay a fee to have access to the official fire report. Perhaps the ruling will change the approach of the Fire Service, which stands accused of placing the needs of the insurance sector ahead of the public. There is little that is a greater threat to the public interest than a fire.
But by and large the biggest threat is posed not by bureaucrats but by ordinary people. Pollution, which sees flammable materials left in the environment, as well as poor land practices are the main aggravating factors in relation to bush fires. We know what our weather patterns are. Yet, every year there are some people who insist on breaching the law by setting fires on their land, regardless of the great risk.
The scale of the disaster in California is no doubt worsened by the climate. But that is no reason to discount the show of fire’s deadly reach.