US towns destroyed as firefighters battle wildfires under orange skies
Hundreds of homes including entire communities were razed by wildfires in the western United States Wednesday, as officials warned of potential mass deaths under apocalyptic orange skies.
At least six people have been killed in the fires, with officials warning that more deaths would likely be reported in the next days as many areas are impossible to reach.
In Oregon, at least five towns were „substantially destroyed” as widespread evacuations took place across the northwestern state, governor Kate Brown said.
„This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history,” she told a press conference.
Neighboring California and Washington states have been scrambling to contain rapidly spreading wildfires since the weekend due to unprecedented heatwaves followed by intense, dry winds.
Fatalities on Wednesday included a one-year-old baby boy who perished while his parents suffered severe burns as they attempted to flee an inferno 130 miles east of Seattle, in Washington state.
Three unidentified people were killed in northern California, while two more deaths were confirmed in the Santiam Canyon region, 60 miles south of Portland, Oregon.
„They are not going to be the only folks that we find deceased up there (in Santiam),” said Marion County sheriff Joe Kast.
Jody Evans, a resident of Detroit — one of the five towns devastated in Oregon — fled her home as the fire approached.
„Coming through fire on both sides, trees down, wind blowing, ash flying,” Evans told Newschannel 21. „It was like driving through hell.”
Sandra Spelliscy, city manager of Talent, Oregon, told AFP that only „smoldering ruins” remained of large parts of her community.
„There are numerous neighborhoods where there are no structures left standing… dozens of homes (gone) and literally nothing except the skeletons of a chimney or an appliance, a water heater,” she said.
– ‘Scary’ –
In California, people in the San Francisco Bay Area awoke to a deep orange sky caused by wildfire smoke that at times blocked out sunlight entirely.
Photos of the eerie scene, particularly of a San Francisco skyline fit for a dystopian science fiction film, spread quickly on social media.
„We know the smoke, darkness, and orange glow is scary. Stay calm and try to stay indoors,” tweeted the fire department.
Cars crossing the famous Golden Gate Bridge were forced to switch their lights on throughout the day.
Much of the smoke blew down from the north, where the Bear Fire exploded at an unprecedented speed overnight, combining with older blazes to scorch over 250,000 acres and threaten the city of Oroville.
„Our office… located the remains of three people,” said Butte County sheriff Kory Honea. „I certainly hope that this isn’t the trend. But, folks, time and time again we’ve seen how dangerous wildfires can be.”
Evacuation warnings were expanded to parts of the town of Paradise, site of California’s deadliest modern fire which killed 86 people less than two years ago.
The nearby August Complex Fire also spread rapidly to become the state’s second-largest blaze in history, at 420,000 acres.
At the Creek Fire in central California, exhausted firefighters raced between blazes as thick columns of smoke rose up from the Sierra forest — now closed, along with all 18 of the state’s national forests.
In one home near Shaver Lake, only the scorched remains of a washing machine, outdoor dining table and chairs were left standing beside the ash-coated chassis of a pickup truck, according to an AFP reporter.
„It’s scary… we just left everything,” said 68-year-old Sandy Clark, who fled her home for a hotel rather than a crowded shelter due to coronavirus fears.
– ‘Devastation’ –
Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate homes across the region.
In Washington, where the town of Malden was decimated, governor Jay Inslee described the wildfires as „unprecedented and heartbreaking.”
Inslee, who campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president on a platform of battling climate change, blamed the effects of a changing climate for the exceptional ferocity of this year’s blazes.
„We’re living in a new world — this is not the old Washington,” he said.
„The devastation is all over our state.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom added: „I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers… It’s completely inconsistent, that point of view, with the reality on the ground.”
More than 14,000 firefighters are fighting 28 major wildfires across the country’s most populous state.
WASHINGTON — A report commissioned by federal regulators overseeing the nation’s commodities markets has concluded that climate change threatens U.S. financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions.
“A world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system,” concluded the report, “Managing Climate Risk in the Financial System,” which was requested last year by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and set for release Wednesday morning.
Those observations are not entirely new, but they carry new weight coming with the imprimatur of the regulator of complex financial instruments like futures, swaps and other derivatives that help fix the price of commodities like corn, oil and wheat. It is the first wide-ranging federal government study focused on the specific impacts of climate change on Wall Street.
Perhaps most notable is that it is being published at all. The Trump administration has suppressed, altered or watered down government science around climate change as it pushes an aggressive agenda of environmental deregulation that it hopes will spur economic growth.
The new report asserts that doing nothing to avert climate change will do the opposite.
“This is the first time a government entity has looked at the impacts of climate change on financial markets in the U.S.,” said Robert Litterman, the chairman of the panel that produced the report and a founding partner of Kepos Capital, an investment firm based in New York. “Rather than saying, ‘What’s the science?’ this is saying, ‘What’s the financial risk?’ ”
The commodities regulator, which is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, all of whom were appointed by President Donald Trump, voted unanimously last summer to create an advisory panel drawn from the world of finance and charged with producing a report on the effects of the warming world on financial markets. The initial proposal for the report came from Rostin Behnam, one of the panel’s two Democrats, but the report is written by dozens of analysts from investment firms including Morgan Stanley, S&P Global and Vanguard; oil companies BP and ConocoPhillips; and agricultural trader Cargill, as well as academic experts and environmental groups.
It includes recommendations for new corporate regulations and the reversal of at least one Trump administration policy.
“It was shocking when they asked me to do this,” Litterman said. “This is members of the entire community involved in financial markets saying with one voice, ‘This is a serious problem, and it has to be addressed.’”
A senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while the full commission had voted to produce the report, it has not yet voted to endorse its findings. “It doesn’t represent the position of the CFTC and is not an official government report,” the official said.
The CFTC subcommittee that authored the report did vote unanimously to endorse it, and it is published on the commission’s website.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative research organization, who served as economic adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said: “This was initiated by the Trump administration. It is the only document of its type.”
He added, “If you’re denying this exists, you don’t ask for a report on it.”
The Republican chairman of the CFTC, Heath Tarbert, acknowledged the risk of climate change, but he noted that the report also detailed what the regulators called “transition risk” — the financial harm that could befall the fossil fuel industry if the government enacted aggressive policies to curb carbon dioxide pollution.
“I appreciate Commissioner Behnam’s leadership on convening various private sector perspectives on the important topic of climate risk,” Tarbert said in a statement. “The subcommittee’s report acknowledges that ‘transition risks’ of a green economy could be just as disruptive to our financial system as the possible physical manifestations of climate change, and that moving too fast, too soon could be just as disorderly as doing too little, too late. This underscores why it is so important for policymakers to get this right.”
Some of the authors of the report acknowledged that if Trump is reelected, his administration is all but certain to ignore the report and its recommendations.
Instead, they said they saw the document as a policy road map for a Joe Biden administration.
Biden’s climate policy proposals are the most ambitious and expensive ever embraced by a presidential candidate, and most of them would meet resistance in Congress. But even without legislation, he could press forward with regulatory changes. Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor who is seen as a top contender to be Treasury secretary in a Biden administration, has called for financial regulators to treat climate change as a significant risk to the financial system.
In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008.
One crucial difference, they said, is that in the case of climate change, financial volatility and loss are likely to be spread out over time, as they hit different regions and markets. Insurance companies could withdraw from California in the wake of devastating wildfires, and home values could plummet on coastlines and in floodplains. In the Midwest, banks could limit loans during or after extended droughts that drastically lower crop yields. All of those problems will be exacerbated by climate change, but they are unlikely to hit all at once.
“Financial markets are really good at managing risk to help us provide credit, so that the economy can flourish,” said Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, an editor of the report who served as senior official at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. But, he added, the system breaks down “when it’s no longer able to manage risk, when it’s invisible, it’s not captured by the price of stocks.”
“That’s what we saw in the financial crisis of 2008, and it’s as relevant now on climate change as it was then on mortgage-backed securities,” he said.
Among the first of those risks already pervading the markets, the report’s authors say, are falling home prices and rising mortgage default rates in regions where wildfires and flooding are worsening.
“Climate change is linked to devaluing home values,” said Jesse Keenan, an editor of the report and a professor of real estate at Tulane University in New Orleans.
“If in your town, your house is devalued, that makes it harder for your local government to raise money,” he said. “That’s one set of risks that could lead to a contagion and broader instability across financial markets.”
Extreme weather could cause swings in agricultural commodity prices, the report warns, and climate-spurred market volatility could afflict pension and retirement funds, which invest across a range of asset classes.
“Climate change is one of the top three risks to our fund,” said Divya Mankikar, an author of the report and an investment manager at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the country’s biggest public pension fund. “We pay pension and health benefits to over 2 million current and former state employees. So the payout is decades out.”
The report makes several concrete recommendations for inoculating the financial system against potential harm.
It emphasizes the need to put a price on carbon emissions, which is often done either by taxing or through an emissions trading system that caps carbon emissions and allots credits that polluters can buy and sell under that cap.
The report calls for the reversal of a proposed rule being put forward by the Trump administration’s Labor Department that would forbid retirement investment managers from considering environmental consequences in their financial recommendations.
“If there’s any class of investors that should be thinking about the long run, it’s retirement funds and pension funds,” said Nathaniel Keohane, an author of the report and an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.
The report suggests that the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a Treasury Department-led body created in the wake of the 2008 crisis, incorporate climate risks into its annual report and its communications with Congress. It suggests that the Federal Reserve and other major financial regulators join international coalitions that focus on climate threats.
The report also suggests that bank regulators should roll out a climate risk stress testing pilot program. Such stress tests, which assess how bank balance sheets and the broader system would fare in bad climate-related economic scenarios, have been under development in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
The authors also recommend that another financial regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, strengthen its existing requirements that publicly traded companies disclose the risks to their bottom lines associated with climate change.
Coca-Cola has noted in its financial disclosures that water shortages driven by climate change pose a risk to its production chains and profitability. But many other companies “just check the box” on that requirement, Keohane said.
Such disclosures should also include the risk to companies’ bottom lines posed by future policies designed to mitigate climate change, such as taxes or regulations on carbon dioxide pollution, which could hurt fossil fuel producers.
“If carbon risk is priced, this will add cost to the oil and gas industry,” said Betty Simkins, a report author and professor of finance at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. “But they need to be prepared for this. It’s better for the companies to disclose the risk and be as financially fit as possible.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
OROVILLE, Calilf. — Three people have died in a Northern California wildfire that has forced thousands from their homes, authorities said Wednesday.
Two people were found dead in one location and a third person was discovered elsewhere, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced. He didn’t provide details but California Highway Patrol Officer Ben Draper told the Bay Area News Group that one person was found in a car and apparently had been trying to escape the flames.
The fire northeast of San Francisco is threatening several communities. Stoked by high winds, it’s burned a 25-mile path through mountainous terrain and parched foothills.
Hundreds of homes and other buildings are believed to have been damaged or destroyed, fire officials said at an evening news conference.
The fire even threatened the town of Paradise that was devastated just two years ago by the deadliest blaze in state history, causing a panic that led to a traffic jam as residents tried to escape.
The North Complex fire was one of more than two dozen in the state, including three of the five largest ever as wildfires burned across parts of the West amid gusty, dry conditions. Forecasters said some weather relief was in sight that could help firefighters overwhelmed by the blazes.
In Washington, more acres burned in a single day than firefighters usually see all year. Fires also forced people to flee homes in Oregon and Idaho. A blast of polar air helped slow wildfires in Colorado and Montana.
Since the middle of August, fires in California have killed eight people, destroyed more than 3,600 structures, burned old growth redwoods, charred chaparral and forced evacuations in communities near the coast, in wine country and along the Sierra Nevada.
With several catastrophic fires burning across Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) warned on Wednesday that all residents „must be on high alert,” as the blazes could lead to the „greatest loss of human life and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.”
The fires spread during a windstorm on Monday, and Brown said hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Some areas are still so dangerous that Oregon Deputy State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple said it isn’t safe for officials to survey the damages. It is believed that the fires near Medford and Salem are especially destructive, The Associated Press reports, and police have confirmed that a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother were killed by a fire in the city of Lyons.
In Washington, the small farming town of Malden was almost completely destroyed by a fast-moving fire, and a 1-year-old boy was killed in Okanogan County when his family was overrun by flames as they tried to escape their home, Sheriff Tony Hawley said Wednesday. The boy’s parents have been hospitalized with third-degree burns.