Two Disasters Are Exponentially Worse Than One

Two Disasters Are Exponentially Worse Than One

  • Californians face an impossible choice between virus safety and fire safety.

Eleven thousand lightning strikes, 370 wildfires, a pandemic, a heat wave, and rolling blackouts—California has endured a lot this week. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned, and tens of thousands of people have had to evacuate. The largest of the blazes—the LNU Lightning Complex fires, which alone span Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Lake Counties—is only 7 percent contained.

One disaster is bad. Two are worse, but the damage doesn’t just double. This confluence of circumstances can seem like a series of independent misfortunes, when in fact it is a tangle of loose contingencies. A single high-pressure system rolling in from the Southwest initiated the heat wave and the thunderstorms, which together created the conditions for the fires, which will likely both exacerbate and be exacerbated by the pandemic, which has diminished firefighting resources and, along with the heat wave, contributed to the blackouts by keeping people at home with their air-conditioning on full blast.

These overlapping disasters compound. “It’s more than plus one,” says Susan Cutter, a disaster researcher at the University of South Carolina. To her knowledge, no one has quantified this synergy exactly, but “it certainly affects the response, probably in exponential ways.”