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Everything Wrong with The Verge’s Article, “What to Expect from the 2021 Fire Season in the West”

Wednesday, August 4, 2021
by Alan Kwok, Climate and Disaster Resilience Director, Northern California Grantmakers
 

As fire season sets in, the stream of well-meaning articles entering our news feed is on the rise. They’re intended to help us make sense of and respond to the threat of wildfire and smoke. What worries me though, is what’s missing from these pithy, otherwise attractive reads.  

Here's a quick list of questions to ask yourself as you sift through the news, regardless of the outlet. As a soft optimist with a sharp point of view, I’d like to equip you to dig behind the reporting to find out not just what’s going on, but why it’s happening, how people are affected differently based on the risks they face, and what we can do about it.  

For the sake of argument, let’s pick on an article that hit all my buttons: What to Expect from the 2021 Fire Season in the West from The Verge.  

Questions to Guide You

Question 1: Sources 

Which sources are missing? 

I always scan for social scientists and people living this reality on the daily. If they’re not in the story, then it’s not giving me what I need.   

Question 2: People 

Where are the people? Who's nearest the harm?  

I find no mention of people, especially people who’ve been chronically locked out of land and the means to build wealth – our elders, tribal communities, farm workers and everyone who works outdoors, essential workers, and low-income families. And, like double jeopardy, many of them live in high wildfire risk areas, or as it's often called the WUI “Wildland Urban Interface (pronounced WOO-ee).”   

A wise person once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What are we doing to prevent people nearest the harm from being most burdened by wildfires? And what are we doing to center the solutions they propose? 

Question 3: Climate 

How is climate change driving fire risk? How do we reverse it? 

Climate change is another risk factor: I live 10 minutes away from the cooling winds of the Pacific and it’s getting hotter by the year. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists indicates that climate change is a major contributor to wildfire frequencies and areas burned in the state. With rising temperatures, our vegetation just dries out more quickly. Snow up in the mountains melts quicker and less snowmelt enters into our reservoirs. Low-income, rural, and tribal communities are facing the brunt of drought and water insecurity.  

Question 4: Resources 

What would take this wildfire season from bad to worse? What can we do about it?  

Let’s hope we don’t get the spectacular lightning we saw last year. We can’t control that. This article cites human behaviors, including baby gender reveal parties with pyrotechnics sparking wildfires. We all can be vigilant, but there will be accidents because tens of millions of people live in these areas.   

Those of us with the resources have insurance to protect our assets and provide temporary shelter if we have to evacuate. I just increased my rental insurance coverage by 300% after witnessing a condo around the corner up in flames a few weeks ago. Many low-income Californians just don’t have that safety net. In California’s rural, low-income, and immigrant communities, residents often do not have the resources to pay for insurance, rebuild, or invest in fire safety, which increases their vulnerability to wildfire.  

We also know when disaster strikes, disaster relief and recovery aid programs don’t do enough to support those who are most affected economically, including immigrants and refugees, tribal communities, renters, and other low-income folks. The New York Times recently published an article about inequities in disaster relief programs. Not only does FEMA underestimate losses, but how it measures losses usually excludes those who don’t have recognized documents about where they live and who they live with. We are also seeing public charge controversy and avoidance of government agencies as barriers to our immigrant communities in accessing resources. 

Question 5: Knowables 

What’s being left to chance? What do we already know with certainty? 

Finally, the article cites wildcards. So, what are the wildcards? There are none! We already know how this wildfire season will unfold, it’s just a matter of location and scale. We know we have data challenges that prevent us from knowing the full costs of wildfires and wildfire smoke. We already know which communities will most likely be at risk of and threatened by wildfires. We also know about the frontline organizations in these communities and how many of them are stretching beyond their capacity to become first-responders.   

What's Next

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. What do you expect from this 2021 fire season? What concerns do you have? And what might we do next in our role in philanthropy? I welcome your responses at akwok@ncg.org

You can also join us for our monthly funders meeting focusing on climate and disaster relief and resilience. Our first meeting is scheduled for August 26th and it will focus on supporting our Latinx and Undocumented communities through this wildfire season.

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