No one wants to see more of any sort of natural disaster. Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve witnessed an increase in any number of act-of-God level events that have cost lives, uprooted people from their homes and played havoc with local and regional economies. Large-scale calamities, hurricanes and wildfires especially, made 2017 the costliest “disaster year” on record in the United States, according to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Fires and hurricanes weren’t the only contributors — floods, tornadoes, drought, and other forms of severe weather also played a part in making 2017 a year many were eager to forget.
Regardless of where 2018 ends up ranking as a “disaster year” the wildfires we’ve thus far seen ravage California will live in memory for some time, bolstered by the images of homes going up in flames and sad stories of lives lost. At least 17 wildfires were recently burning in the state at once, and one of them, a 450-square mile fire, is the largest in California history. It’s expected to continue burning through the end of the month.
The blink-of-an-eye fashion in which wildfires can overtake and burn neighborhoods and communities is always surprising. One resident of Lake Elsinore, California — who escaped the so-called Holy Fire in the southern part of the state — told CBS news, “Fire travels faster than you think. Over two hours, the flames were chasing us. You hear the roaring just an incredible sensation to be in this and to be faced with life and death.”
I find myself impacted more by news of wildfires than of other disasters, simply because I’ve been more personally affected by one. I was living in west Texas in 2011 — a historically destructive wildfire year for that state — when a 314,444-acre wildfire ravaged huge swaths of the countryside we called home then. That fire, which burned for 37 days, is still the third-largest wildfire in recorded Texas history, according to the Texas Forest Service. A number of people lost their homes, ranch land was destroyed and a lot of livestock was killed. Amazingly, no human life was lost, thanks in large part to how sparsely populated that region is. The wind-driven wildfire moved unbelievably fast, but much of the area it tore through was grassland. Firefighting teams were brought in from around the country, but none of the firefighters were seriously hurt. The real injury there, beyond the homes and livestock, was to the countryside, which was blackened, something that impacted the tourism-centered economy for some time thereafter.
One of my strongest impressions from the time echoes what that Lake Elsinore, California resident said about how fast a wildfire travels. I was attending an event at an observatory in the mountains when word of the approaching fire began to spread through the crowd. Walking outside, I saw the massive column of smoke, which still seemed a safe distance away.
I called my wife, who told me an order to evacuate the area where we lived had been broadcast over the radio, and by the time I’d driven down from the mountains I could see why. Smoke from the fire, which just minutes earlier had seemed distant, was already beginning to drift through the area.
Driving to a spot where flames were visible, I stopped and stood by the side of the highway to take photos — and knew I wouldn’t be standing there long, as by that time the fire was advancing, quickly.
Next stop: Home, where Jennifer and I put our pets and a few belongings in our car, our eventual next stop being my office at the newspaper, which was in an area outside the fire’s path.
It’s hard to imagine what Californians, in areas that have been largely burned to ash, are experiencing. Or what those in the path of future U.S. wildfires will experience, as huge blazes that are beyond the ability of firefighters to control continue. A number of factors — long-term drought, periods of extreme heat, abundant fuel in many areas — are contributing to the trend. At the same time, in the western U.S. especially, more and more people are moving into areas that present high fire risk.
During our wildfire experience, my family was lucky. Long story short, we made it out OK and our home was not damaged. Had it been, we’d have lost virtually everything, and that’s my other strong impression from that time: what it felt like to make hurried decisions about what to throw into our small car, with no assurance anything we left behind would survive the fire. I think we made good decisions, but I’m thankful we didn’t have to weigh them later against things that were lost. So many aren’t as fortunate.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.