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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Hanna Barczyk

It was tempting this week to throw shade at the people who sparked a giant wildfire in south California when they set off a “pyrotechnic device” at a gender reveal party. In my day (not so long ago) you were happy if you taught your children the correct names for their genitals, without having to throw a party featuring explosions.

It was easy to blame these people, who are at least the second group to have caused a wildfire because they couldn’t control their excitement over having a girl, or possibly a boy. But is it fair? It kind of lets the rest of us off the hook. Let he among you who has not set off a turquoise-smoke hand grenade cast the first stone.

The gender-reveal party didn’t cause the rest of the wildfires, which are currently engulfing the Western United States in what experts call an unprecedented conflagration, the worst in more than a century. More than three million acres have burned in California alone. In San Francisco and parts of Northern California, the sky turned orange, and even committed hedonists joked uneasily about end times and the Book of Revelation.

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For anyone who felt smug about the fires down there and not up here, the smoke from Western U.S. has caused health advisories to be issued in parts of British Columbia. Researchers at the University of British Columbia had just released a study about how quickly wildfire smoke can exacerbate health problems for people with heart and lung conditions, and diabetes. When the world burns or floods or bakes with increasing frequency, we’re all at the mercy of – well, I’m not going to call them natural disasters, and neither should anybody else.

Video captured via drone showed residential streets in Oregon with little left but the foundations of houses. Several burnt out vehicles and flattened structures were all that remained of a farm in Eagle Point. Reuters

Risk-mitigation scholars have called for the phrase “natural disaster” to be abandoned for decades. For one thing, it conveniently absolves humankind of any agency in creating the disaster in the first place. Siberia’s on fire? Parts of Sudan are underwater? God must be in a snit! To call a catastrophe “natural” assumes it’s inevitable, outside the realm of human influence. Finally, the term suggests such disasters affect everyone equally, when the opposite is true – it’s the poor, marginalized and inadequately housed who are most likely to bear the brunt of the pain of a warming planet.

“Natural disasters do not exist,” writes Ilan Kelman of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. “Disasters are caused by vulnerabilities which are entirely societal processes meaning that disasters are not natural. Disasters are caused by society and societal processes, forming and perpetuating vulnerabilities through activities, attitudes, behaviour, decisions, paradigms, and values.”

Those societal processes are complex and intertwined and human: Who gets a share of resources? Who has to live on a flood plain? Who writes the building codes and gives developers the go-ahead? There’s nothing inevitable about any of these questions, except in the current exploitative economic model we consider the norm.

Or, in the case of the wildfires in the Western U.S., how have human decisions caused an increase in the intensity and frequency of wildfires? Again, fire scientists have long issued warnings about the warmer temperatures and drier conditions brought on by climate change combining with housing developments encroaching on forests, all while the ancient practice of controlled burning has been discouraged. “I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Tim Ingalsbee of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology told ProPublica last month. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

There are some quarters where the phrase natural disaster still reigns supreme: In print and broadcast media, where a hurricane is an object of fascination, and in the world of global insurance, which tracks the rise of “natural catastrophes” and links them, with flinty actuarial eyes, to climate change. I’m sure I’ve used the term many times without really thinking about its implications.

Those who study the effects of climate change also warn against blaming nature for our sins: “We’re using the term natural disasters, but in many cases, there is absolutely nothing natural about the disasters we are talking about,” Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, said when he testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last year. “We’re not saying they’ve been caused by climate change, we’re saying climate change has worsened them.”

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Prof. Mann then went on to list some of the extreme weather that man-made climate change is making more intense and volatile: stronger and wetter hurricanes, floods caused by storm surges, drought, heatwaves and wildfires. They are not caused by angry sea gods or other mystical forces. And they’re not “acts of nature” in the sense of being inevitable – unless we do nothing to curb them.

I’m pretty sure that very few people gazing up at the doom-coloured sky and watching ash blanket the streets in San Francisco thought, “Oh, there’s Mother Nature in all her glory.” They were probably thinking, “Is there enough gas in the car to get me to Indiana?” Or possibly, “Where did I leave my will?” They live in California, where emergency preparedness is second only to organically grown in the local hierarchy of needs, but even for them it must have been shocking.

Shock can be useful, as we learned this year. It can shake us out of old ways of thinking, and labelling, and give us fresh eyes to make new connections for the future. A future where, hopefully, the sky isn’t orange at noon.

Dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires burned through forests and towns in U.S. West Coast states on Thursday, destroying hundreds of homes, killing at least nine people and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, authorities said. Reuters

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