Paradise smoke: Not just wood

The World Meteorological Organization predicted 2018 will be the fourth hottest year on record.  The other three hottest years were 2017, 2016 and 2015.  The “new ab-normal” will be bush fires in Australia, forest fires in Sweden and wildfires in California—different countries, different names, but the same devastating effects. 

The California State Senate issued a report this week that affirms statements from the American Public Health Association that climate change is “the greatest threat to public health”, domestically in California and globally.  In Paradise, it was not just a wildfire affecting woods and grasslands.  An entire city burned along with all the trappings of modern life.  The property loss was US$7B to $10B along with at least 85 lives and 18,800 structures incinerated, including homes, schools, restaurants, a shopping centre and a nursing home. 

The New York Times catalogues “burned bottles of bleach, melted cans of paint, and corroded car batteries” that were vapourised.  NYT reporter Sarah Maslin Nir writes, “In the charred footprint of each home in Paradise lurks an invisible and dangerous legacy of the Camp Fire: toxic chemicals released by the blaze. There may be radioactive isotopes from burned-up antique crockware, cupboards of incinerated household cleaners, and asbestos from old siding. Heavy metals, chemicals and biological contaminants left behind demand a cleanup of extraordinary scale, before any permanent return to Paradise is safe, according to the [California Department of Toxic Substances Control].” 

Workers enter the home sites wearing plastic suits, breathing masks and covered boots.  The plume of smoke exposed millions of Californians to unknown air hazards.  Cal State Prof Jackson Webster said, “We don’t know the magnitude of the contamination that was produced in this urban burning, because it was unprecedented.” Currently over 100 fires are still burning in Queensland, and the summer is just beginning in Australia.  When you smell that next summer bush fire, is it just wood smoke, or something more sinister in the air?


This story is featured in the 7 December 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.