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  December 23, 2017

California Wildfire Becomes Largest Ever Recorded

As 2017 marks a new benchmark for climate change-related U.S. disasters, FEMA's director tells Americans they will "have to take care of themselves" when disasters strike
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SHARMINI PERIES: This is year end 2017 fundraising season here at The Real News network. Do donate to our climate crisis bureau. We believe that climate change is the greatest crisis facing humanity.’

TRNN CLIMATE CRISIS PRODUCER, KATHLEEN MAITLAND-CARTER: California is in a State of Emergency. With the Southern Californian ‘Thomas Fire’ on track to be the largest in the state’s recorded history. Almost five thousand firefighters are battling the blaze, which has burned for over two weeks and has killed at least one person.

Thirty-two year old Fire Apparatus Engineer, Cory Iverson, died from burns and smoke inhalation. He leaves behind his pregnant wife and their infant child.

The Thomas fire has been driven by strong winds and unseasonably hot weather. This is California’s worst fire season on record,causing over 10 billion dollars in damages, a figure that doesn’t include the cost of the current fire. Scientists link this crisis to urban sprawl, building too close to wooded areas, poor forest management practices, as well as climate change that has raised temperatures and dried-out trees that become fuel for the fire. According to a ground-breaking study, Climate Change has doubled the geographical area hit by forest fires across the US. We spoke to one of the study’s authors.

DR. JOHN ABATZOGLOU: The way to think about this is we go back to sort of the ingredients you need for sort of having a campfire and those ingredients are fairly simple. There's three of them: you need to have enough fuel, you need that fuel to be dry enough and then you need an ignition source. If we're thinking about our forested regions across the western United States, as well as other areas globally, usually there's enough fuel there but usually what limits fires, especially large fire seasons is that the moisture is typically wet enough. Things that end up altering reducing the vegetation in fuel, whether that's a recession in mountain snowpack, warmer summer temperatures that draw more moisture out of fuels, those things can begin to allow forests that used to be sort of more resilient to fire to become fire prone. In our study, we found that basically of those three ingredients, man-made climate change was acting to increase fuel dryness, creating basically a longer window of the year when fuels could be receptive as to igniting and carrying fire.

KATHLEEN MAITLAND-CARTER: In California’s summer wildfires at least 40 people were killed, another 75,000 were displaced and more than 5,700 structures were destroyed. In the ongoing ‘Thomas’ fire’, over one thousand structures have burnt to the ground, and almost two hundred thousand people have been evacuated from their homes. Some may never return. While California, the 6th biggest economy in world, has state-wide plans for climate change adaptation, other areas of the country are potentially far less prepared for extreme disasters, that scientists say are on the rise due to human-caused climate change. In the devastation of the unprecedented Hurricane season of 2017, many in the hardest hit areas of Texas and Puerto Rico, are yet to return home or be rehoused. And it turns out, they may be on their own.

Brock Long, the Trump-appointed head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said, that if these extreme disasters are the ‘new normal’, Americans won’t be able to rely on FEMA when a disaster hits. Long said. quote,. "I didn't come to do status quo, I'm ready to change the face of emergency management.” Long told CNN the burgeoning demographic of US disaster survivors, “will have to take care of themselves.”. There is a growing body of study that speaks to the importance of organized communities in the face of disasters. TAMARA SHAPIRO is a former member of ‘Occupy Sandy’. The Real News interviewed her on Hurricane Sandy’s recent 5 year anniversary.

TAMARA SHAPIRO: One thing I've been thinking a lot about .. is just how much we haven't learned and have to learn about how a civilian-wide disaster relief effort can step in where the government will surely fall short. Superstorm Sandy was five years ago and in those five years there really weren't that many huge disasters. In the past few months, we've just seen one another the other. We have a lot of lessons to share, that we need to share, that we need to learn from each other, because civilians are the ones that are gonna be the first responders when a disaster happens and the last on the ground after all the other institutions leave. The Occupy Sandy grew out of the Occupy Wall Street network and, therefore, relied on the people, the relationships, and the infrastructure that been building for the past year. Occupy Sandy was effective in part because it was a decentralized effort. Any response to a disaster that is going to be effective has to be decentralized. We don't have time for things to move up and down big bureaucratic chains. And so, we were able to respond very quickly, not just because we had the relationships and the infrastructure, but also because we had the organizing ethos of what it meant to be a part of a decentralized effort.

KATHLEEN MAITLAND-CARTER: 2017 was the costliest year for natural disasters hitting the U.S. on record. including Hurricanes, Harvey, Maria and Irma pushing the total to more than 400 billion in damages, this amount excludes the current California wildfire.

Almost 5 million Americans have registered for federal aid since Labor Day, according to CNN

LINDSAY MEIMAN, COMMUNICATION DIRECTOR 350.ORG: We know that climate impacts all of us. It is something that we all need to come together to address meaningfully. We also know that it does not impact all of us equally. It is, more often than not, low income communities, communities of color that have done the least to contribute to this crisis that they're the brunt of the costs. It's also these same communities that are leading the charge in the change that we know that we need.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI, VICE PRESIDENT, HIP HOP CAUCUS, FORMER HEAD OF EPA ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE PROGRAM: People are building coalitions. People are coming together who have been in silos before and saying we are all in the same boat now.

KATHLEEN MAITLAND-CARTER: This has been Kathleen Maitland -Carter, reporting for the Real News. Please donate to our Climate Crisis Bureau so we can produce more coverage on how to combat climate change’s unfolding disasters.

Credits:Writer & Producer: Kathleen Maitland-Carter

Editor & Producer: Dwayne Gladden

Climate Crisis Bureau Producers: Dimitri Lascaris, Dharna Noor

Senior Producer: Aaron Maté

Executive Producer: Sharmini Peries


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