What the Camp Fire Revealed

by Annie Lowrey: For More, Go Here

Two months after disaster struck, the recovery in Paradise, California, is harder for some than for others.

Natural disasters are equalizing forces. Fires torch the homes of the rich and the poor alike. Hurricanes destroy cruise ships as well as decade-old cars. Earthquakes level cities, affecting everyone within. But natural disasters are also polarizing forces. Income and wealth shape who gets hit; how much individuals, insurers, nonprofits, and governments are willing and able to help; and who recovers, as well as to what extent.

That dynamic is now evident in Paradise, California, after the Camp Fire, much as it was in Houston after Harvey, Puerto Rico after Maria, New Jersey and New York after Sandy, New Orleans after Katrina, and so many other places after so many other disasters, small and large. Across the country, two of the most potent forces in American life—climate change, which portends more frequent and more violent natural disasters, and social stratification—are colliding. And the former stands to make the latter far, far worse.

The Camp Fire was all-consuming, incinerating much of the town of Paradise in mere hours. After breaking out in early November, it burned for more than two weeks, killing at least 86 people, destroying some 14,000 homes, and causing roughly $17 billion in insured losses. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history, and one of the worst natural calamities to hit the United States.

When a disaster strikes, the evacuation often stratifies on class lines, too. People with very low incomes, the disabled, and the elderly are less likely to have technologies that might alert them to a fire speeding their way or a hurricane about to bear down. In part for this reason, the average age of those who died in the Camp Fire was estimated at 71.

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