The Age of the Urban Inferno Is Here
Newsletter Opinion Writer It wasnt even really a wildfire. By the time the flames passed through Lahaina, Hawaii burning a beloved 150-year-old banyan tree and throwing embers so far that when residents jumped into the ocean for relief, they saw the hulls of boats floating among them on fire, too it had long since left the wild land behind. Instead it had become another instance of what the climate scientist Daniel Swain the return of the urban firestorm. The string of examples is growing: the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 2017; the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif., the following year; and the Marshall fire in Boulder County, Colo., in 2021, which after burning through a lot of nearby vegetation to a shopping center with a Costco and a Chuck E. Cheese and ultimately destroyed homes. You might think of these events as having two ignitions: the first when the natural landscape begins to burn, from a lightning strike or a dropped match or a downed power line, and the second when that fire, often supercharged by climate conditions, makes the jump to buildings and cars and other forms of modern infrastructure and keeps burning. In general, weve long believed the built environment offered formidable firebreaks and worried over what might be lost when fires passed near homes as a form of tragic collateral damage. But increasingly, fires emerging hotter and more intense from the natural landscape are burning human structures not as collateral but as fuel, jumping from home to home as earlier fires would jump from tree crown to tree crown, with vegetation, Swain told me when I interviewed him in the wake of the Marshall fire for , acting only as a wick. These firestorms may seem like a harbinger, he said, but they are also a throwback, to a time a century or more ago when towns and cities, in an era of wood-frame buildings and premodern firefighting, regularly stared down the threat of incineration by flame. The Maui disaster has already become the deadliest American fire in over a century, surpassing the Camp fire, which incinerated 18,000 homes and structures and claimed 85 lives, with most of the damage coming in the . As of Tuesday, the official death toll in Maui was 99, but almost 1 percent of residents remained unaccounted for, and many locals were suggesting the death toll could increase significantly in the days ahead. The Hawaiian Islands are no stranger to fire, and for years fire scientists and fire officials and even the local utility of risk in this particular area, including that a wildfire could draft off exceptional wind provided by a passing typhoon. A climate lawsuit by Maui against Big Oil in 2020 cited additional wildfire risk. But still, when the fire broke out, almost no one seemed adequately prepared. It grew almost immediately from nearby grassland into a huge urban conflagration, and first-person accounts were almost too grim to read, as were reports that early-warning alarms and that cellphone reception on which we all now depend, especially in times of crisis and low-information panic and 911 service were as well. When Americans contemplate climate futures for Southern California and South Florida, they may remind themselves that each was a paradise built on inhospitable desert or swamp on the basis of a sales pitch and a mirage and sustained, at least for a time, by heroic infrastructure designed to keep the dream alive. In Hawaii the landscape has also been radically transformed, including in ways that . But fewer Americans see the story of a built Hawaii as clearly, imagining the archipelago as more of an untouched landscape which is to say timeless and even unchanged. Almost as soon as the smoke cleared, before wed even gotten a clear sense of the horrifying toll, there were arguments about just how to describe what had happened and how much to attribute the tragedy to climate change. Terrifying winds, which may have reached , were supercharged by a passing hurricane and probably downed power lines that some believe sparked the fires. The landscape had been made much more flammable , and though many to drought as a contributing factor to the flammability of the landscape in recent months, the drought does not appear to have been . Perhaps that all should sound like a kind of reassurance, because if warming is only partly to blame, then that, in theory, suggests a more manageable job of adaptation: scaling the mountain we see rather than one growing beneath our feet. But this is always how climate works not single-handedly but together with randomness and existing hazards and by making familiar risks worse. It doesnt change the scale of the tragedy to know that it could have been foreseen or that it had many authors beyond warming, and the larger problem is we are simply not responding to complex threats like these all that adequately almost anywhere, including those places where rising risks are perhaps most incontrovertible. In Bangladesh, population flows point directly ; in Florida, is true. Across America, 59 million homes lie a bit more than half a mile of a recent fire, and between 1990 and 2015, homes were added to the most fire-prone regions of the country. In earlier eras those burn scars would have offered a perverse reassurance, since it was believed that forests would take a few decades to regrow sufficiently to produce another major fire. These days we are and building there anyway. In 2021 and 2022, according to Redfin data by Bloomberg, the number of Americans moving into ZIP codes with the highest risk of flood, heat or fire increased in each category from 2019 and 2020. According to a separate analysis, 55 percent of American homes built this decade are at risk from wildfires, compared with just 14 percent of homes built between 1900 and 1959. Insurers are already . The rest of us arent doing all that much yet. In Lahaina, when the inferno came, the alarms didnt even go off. If they had, would it have been enough? David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of The Uninhabitable Earth.