Fires in California: why so many people have disappeared and is it possible to avoid a repetition of the tragedy
Over the past few days, the number of people who have been missing list as a result of fires in northern California, increased to more than 1200 people. Then it dropped to about a thousand.
These fluctuations caused confusion in the minds of many residents of the state and officials, notes Air force... The Camp fire, as it is called, killed 77 people - an official record and the death toll is relatively stable.
So why is the list of missing people so mobile?
The answer to this question is not as simple as the authorities in the worst-hit area, Butte County, admit. On Friday, when the number of missing persons exceeded 1000, Sheriff Corey Honea called the list of the missing "dynamic".
“As long as the information that I am giving you is rather crude, we do not exclude that there are duplicate names on the list,” the sheriff said.
Authorities indicate that the number of missing people changes due to the fact that the list is constantly updated and revised based on incoming messages, phone calls and emails, the flow of which after 8 November, when the fire started, is only increasing.
The fire spread very quickly, and many residents were forced to hurry to evacuate. In this situation, it was difficult to obtain confirmed information about missing people. Currently, hundreds of rescue and police officers, accompanied by specially trained dogs, are searching for human remains in burnt houses.
Some media outlets immediately noted duplication of names or strange anomalies in the list of missing people. For example, the newspaper New York Times wrote that it found five people at the age of 119 in the early versions of the list.
The newspaper reported that she managed to find some people on the list using social networks.
The attention of the press was attracted by the case of Tamara Conry, who posted a post on Facebook that she was alive.
“My husband and I were never on the missing list,” she wrote on one of the specially designated search pages on Thursday. “Our relatives are not looking for us. I called and left a request to remove our names from the list. ”
Sheriff Honea explained why he decided not to oppose the publication of unverified lists. “It is important for us to disseminate information as widely as possible in order to start searching and identifying the missing,” he says.
In total, more than 12 thousands of buildings were destroyed by fire in the state, and evacuation orders are active in several areas. Thousands of residents are housed in temporary premises or shelters.
Therefore, it is very difficult for the authorities to establish who exactly is missing, and who got on the list by accident or by mistake. The situation is complicated by communication difficulties. The fire destroyed many mobile towers and cable lines. In some areas, temporary mobile towers are now installed.
Authorities keep records of announcements about the loss of people who are placed by relatives on bulletin boards in temporary camps for evacuees. In social networks, there are special pages where you can post requests for missing.
The official list of missing persons in Butte County contains many names of elderly people, reflecting the specifics of the population - there are many retirees living in the district who have bought houses here after retirement. IN Paradise, almost completely destroyed by fire27 lived thousands of people, about a quarter of the inhabitants of the city were older than 65 years.
Erik Rainbold, the chief of police in Paradise, says that the demographics of the city point to the difficulties the authorities faced in evacuating the elderly in extraordinary circumstances.
“As in other places, we have a lot of elderly people who either no longer use cars or have never driven at all,” says the police chief. Such people, if they manage to get out of dangerous areas, often do not have access to the Internet and phones to inform friends and family about themselves.
Sheriff Honea says that because of the relocations, many of the people whose names were on the missing list may not even realize that they are being searched.
According to his employees, this list is being published because the authorities hope with its help to encourage people to report their fate. Authorities ask local residents to constantly check the list and tell them by phone about people who are safe in order to focus limited resources on finding others.
Will tragedy happen again? Five myths about forest fires
Columnist BBC Future explores the five most common misconceptions that prevent us more effectively deal with forest fires.
The blaze of wildfires is rolling like a rollerball through California - thousands are fleeing their homes, dozens have died, the fire has reached the bohemian areas of the state, and mansions of some famous film actors and singers have already burned down.
In the summer, a similar calamity overtook Greece, killing 99 people. Due to record heat and drought in July, forests were on fire in Sweden. In Russia, forest fires rage almost every summer - for example, in July of this year, the smoke from fires in Siberia reached as much as North America.
Well, now, because of global warming, it will always be so everywhere? Or are forest fires a normal thing, natural for nature, although they bring tragedy into our lives? Can they be avoided, and if so, how?
Let's take a look at the five most enduring myths that prevent us from effectively dealing with this scourge.
Myth number 1: Regular deforestation prevents forest fires
There is an opinion that deforestation, at least selectively, can prevent fires. But in fact, many forestry experts say that it is ineffective, because it still leaves stumps and branches, which can be considered excellent fuel for fire - after all, they are usually drier and ignite more easily than living trees - especially in lack of forest cover.
The words of these experts are more than once confirmed by research. For example, one of the recent work of scientists has shown that the degree of burnout was higher in those areas where there was a higher level of forest use and concern for the forest.
Scientists working on the problem of preserving forests from fires reject claims that felling allegedly protects endangered species from fire (this argument is popular with supporters of felling). In fact, animals and birds (such as the famous spotted owl) benefit from burnt forest, and cutting down trees creates problems for them.
Another practice gives more advantages - complete clearing of forests from entire areas. This is what firefighters do to prevent the spread of fire.
Myth number 2: You can not protect your house from fire
Burning wood carries great danger, the flame is difficult to stop. However, each household can take a series of measures that will reduce the degree of risk.
You need to start from the very home. Buildings with heat-resistant roofs increase the chances of escape from fire. It is also recommended to clean the building and the surrounding areas from flammable materials - including leaves.
A family can create a “protective zone” between their home and the surrounding area. This means that everything that can catch fire must be removed in an area of nine meters from the building. Even when the trees closest to the house are at a distance of 9-30 meters, care must be taken to ensure that their crowns are also separated from each other at such a distance - this complicates the spread of fire, reduces its speed.
Myth number 3: Forest fires are inevitable, they are natural to nature.
Although wildfires are indeed a natural phenomenon, their current intensity and prevalence are not at all natural, they are one of the factors influencing changes in the planet's climate.
Between 1930 and 1980, when the average weather conditions on Earth were different - cooler and wetter - we saw fewer fires. But as the climate has grown hotter and drier in the past four decades, the number of fires has increased. Between 1980 and 1999, there were two years when more than 2,4 million hectares of forest fires burned out in the United States. And from 2000 to 2017 there were 10 years when this figure was exceeded.
In the period between 1978 and 2013 for years across the planet, the duration of the forest fire season increased by about 19%.
Of course, we cannot blame climate change for a particular fire, but these changes affect factors leading to fires and the spread of fire (large droughts, high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds). As a result, according to scientists, the number of fires across the planet is growing, from Siberia to Portugal, and is associated with climate change.
Myth number 4: All forest fires are harmful, they must be immediately extinguished.
For millennia, wildfires have played a key role in Earth's ecosystems, and life on the planet has evolved alongside and dependent on them. Some beetles reproduce only in the heat of fires, the cones of the so-called fire pine throw seeds into the air only in the fire, new plants appear in the areas cleaned by fire - and so on.
In fact, what people are trying to do with deforestation or other forest management methods is naturally achieved as a result of forest fires.
The fire periodically consumes small branches and trees, destroying parts of the forest that would otherwise be excellent fuel for a large fire. Through our stubborn fight against wildfires over the past century, we have thwarted this “self-cleaning”: today, less than one percent of fires in the United States are entitled to burn unhindered.
Perhaps this strategy is good when the number of fires is small. But in the present conditions, the financial costs of extinguishing fires are paying less and less.
Myth number 5: It is possible to get rid of all fires (or control them)
As we have already understood, climate change, together with other factors of human activity, will influence the increase in the number of forest fires in the coming decades - especially in the middle and high latitudes. In the tropics, there may be fewer fires, which will be a relief for the equatorial states. However, on the rest of the planet, this will become a problem, the severity of which will only grow.
Some fires, such as in California, spread too quickly and are extremely difficult to control. In such circumstances, the only reasonable means are evacuation and resettlement.
And this puts us in front of the question: what to do with such settlements as, for example, Paradise in northern California, which was almost completely destroyed by fire - rebuild it or move it to another, safer place?
Some experts urge traditional indigenous practitioners to learn from wildfire management.
Our efforts to fight the fire are still ineffective, and since there is no reason to believe that forests will burn less, the problem of fires takes on a political connotation - it will have to be addressed by the state authorities.
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