An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why 2023 has been such an unusual and tragic year for wildfires

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tragic and bizarre may be the two words that best sum up wildfires in 2023. There were fires in the tropics, and toxic smoke from blazes near the Canadian Arctic blew down to the Eastern Seaboard for weeks. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that this year's fire survivors face a long recovery.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Wildfires in California and the West are often dominating headlines by August - not this year. Instead, remnants of a hurricane were dumping record rain, and it was Hawaii that was on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMNA NAWAZ: Welcome to the NewsHour. At least 55 people are confirmed dead tonight after fast-moving wildfires ravaged the island of Maui.

SIEGLER: It ended up being the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, killing 100 people. Some survivors had no other means of escape but to jump into the ocean.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

SIEGLER: In the aftermath of the fire, a seaside resort near the destroyed town of Lahaina had become a shelter. David Ormsbee said he was grateful to have made it out of the fire alive.

DAVID ORMSBEE: The smoke just kept getting blacker. It just started getting hotter and hotter, and we just got the hell out.

SIEGLER: Ormsbee was shellshocked. The fire destroyed the apartment building where he rented and the business he worked at.

ORMSBEE: Now it's just a matter of the waiting game, you know? And what do you do next? That is the question. I don't know. I'm working one day at a time, man.

SIEGLER: The recent years have shown that it can now take a decade or more to recover from climate-driven wildfires. On Maui, they're still just clearing the debris, and there was already a labor and housing shortage before the fire. Catrin Edgeley is a wildfire recovery expert at Northern Arizona University.

CATRIN EDGELEY: When we think about recovery in basic terms, we're often thinking, well, how long does it take to rebuild a house? - maybe a couple years if there's a backlog in contractors. But a rebuilt house does not mean that you're recovered.

SIEGLER: And even rebuilding a house in a couple of years is considered fast. Edgeley researched survivors of the Marshall Fire that ignited in the winter two years ago in suburban Boulder, Colo. She says many fire victims can be retraumatized during the recovery because they have to prove and retell everything to insurance companies and FEMA, and that slows everything down.

EDGELEY: And that can just take a significant toll if you think about the stress that can create - the reliving of that experience over and over.

SIEGLER: And many learn that even if they have insurance, it's not enough to cover the costs of rebuilding.

BERNADETTE GRANT: Now, as you can see, slowly but surely, we're clearing out the space.

SIEGLER: Bernadette Grant and Richard Fox have only just now come up with a long-term plan to rebuild on property Grant owns in the forests outside Paradise, Calif., which burned five years ago.

RICHARD FOX: We don't even know if we can get insurance yet. I mean, we're not even close to that stage - to bringing someone in and trying to get insurance on it.

SIEGLER: Before Lahaina, Paradise had been the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century. It's still fresh for Grant and Fox, who are logging out all the dense stands of trees that pose a fire risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY EQUIMENT RUNNING)

SIEGLER: Now they hope to use the lumber from here to build a modest cabin. Right now, they're staying in an RV on the property.

GRANT: In the meantime, we just keep clearing the property (laughter).

FOX: Keep clearing it out, try to make it safe, and that's all we can do.

SIEGLER: Some Paradise leaders have been meeting with their counterparts in Lahaina this fall, guiding them on how to recover from the unthinkable. Today, about a third of the Paradise area has been rebuilt. Mitchell Snyder at UC Davis says that's remarkable when you consider almost 19,000 homes and businesses burned.

MITCHELL SNYDER: In the future, as we look towards the one-year anniversary of Lahaina, we just remember that there are people behind the numbers that we see on the headlines. And so for so many people, this was the worst day of their life.

SIEGLER: And this year may have made the wildfire threat a lot more real to decision-makers in Washington, D.C. Toxic smoke turned the skies an apocalyptic orange up and down the East Coast, giving a glimpse of what most summers in the West are already like. Pressure is building to prioritize prevention, not fighting these modern megafires later. In Hawaii, a shaken Curt Hanthorn was frustrated at what he said was all the finger-pointing after the Lahaina fire.

CURT HANTHORN: Pointing blame - it's the electric company's fault. It's the county's fault. It's Joe Biden's fault. It's everybody's fault. They want an easy answer. And the fact of the matter is, I saw it from beginning to end, and it moved so fast, like a blowtorch.

SIEGLER: No one's stopping fires like these, he said.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.