Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by wildfire evacuations and thousands of these evacuees have been displaced for the long term, like Michell and his family. Indigenous peoples make up five per cent of Canada’s population but experience 42 per cent of wildfire evacuation events, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. This year, 25,000 people from 79 First Nations have had to leave home because of wildfires, Indigenous Services Canada told The Breach by email. In the past decade, 70,824 First Nations people have been evacuated from their communities because of wildfires, the department’s data shows.
Fires that began on August 8 have devastated the landscape of Maui, Hawaii, taking the lives of at least 115 people and leaving thousands displaced and thousands of residences burned to the ground. Native Hawaiians, who are already the most impoverished populations in Hawaii and are falling victim to rapid gentrification, are expected to be hit the hardest by the long and short-term effects of the fires. To add insult to injury, a group of Native Hawaiian farmers are witnessing a coordinated attempt by the government and land developers to shift the blame of the fires away from the root causes of colonialism, and on to Indigenous water rights.
On August 8, a wildfire began in Lahaina, Maui, that spread to affect over 3,200 acres of the island. As the former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, Lahaina is a significant historical and cultural site for Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli). So far, over 110 people have been killed by the wildfires, at least 20 people have been injured, and over a thousand people are still missing. At the center of this disaster is the long and ongoing struggle for water and land rights for Native Hawaiians.
August 29 will mark the 18th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, which devastated much of the Gulf Coast (specifically Louisiana and Mississippi) and disproportionately struck New Orleans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that this Category 4 hurricane caused at least $108 billion in structural damage, leading to more than one million people being displaced, many permanently, especially the poor and people of color. According to livescience.com, an estimated 1,833 people died in the hurricane and the flooding that followed. (Aug. 27, 2015) That flooding, mainly caused by broken levees, overwhelmed the Ninth Ward, a predominant working-class Black neighborhood in New Orleans.
Wildfires, pushed by powerful winds, raced through Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 8 and 9, 2023, leaving a charred and smoldering landscape across the tourist town of about 13,000 residents that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. At least 36 people died, Maui County officials said. Others were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard after going into the ocean to escape the flames. Fires were still burning on Aug. 10, both in Maui’s tourist-filled west coast and farther inland, as well as on the Big Island of Hawaii. Dry grasses and strong winds, influenced by Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, heightened the fire risk.
Skies on the US’s East Coast turned an apocalyptic orange in early June, as wildfire smoke from Canada blew south. On Wednesday, June 7, New York City’s air quality ranked the worst in the world, with an Air Quality Index rating of more than 400 out of 500—deemed “hazardous” for any individual. Scientists expect forest fires to increase with the advance of climate disruption—mainly driven by fossil fuel consumption. Hotter, dryer weather, an increase in the type of brush that fuels these fires, and more frequent lightning strikes all contribute to this outcome (NOAA, 8/8/22; UN, 2/23/22; PNAS, 11/1/21; International Journal of Wildland Fire, 8/10/09).
On June 29, the air quality in Detroit was among the worst in the world. “Outside it smelled like burnt plastic, almost like trash,” said UAW member Cody Zaremba, who works at a General Motors plant in Lansing, Michigan. He and his co-workers were experiencing coughing, runny noses, watery eyes, and trouble breathing. But GM didn’t even acknowledge the smoke, Zaremba said, much less offer any protection. “Everybody just had to go about it their own way,” he said. “We can all see it and smell it. But what are we going to do about it?” As wildfires, drought, floods, and scorching heat disrupt the supply chain, the logistics industry is starting to worry about the impact of climate change…on profits.
Princeton, N.J. — As I write this, the sun is a hazy reddish orange orb. The sky is an inky yellowish gray. The air has an acrid stench and leaves a faint metallic taste in my mouth. After 20 minutes outside, my head starts to ache, my nose burns, my eyes itch and my breathing becomes more labored. Streets are deserted. The ubiquitous lawn service companies with their machine mowers and whining gas-powered leaf blowers have disappeared, along with pedestrians, cyclists and joggers. Those who walk their dog go out briefly and then scamper back inside. N95 masks, as in the early days of the pandemic, are sold out, along with air purifiers.
As he watched the last plane lumber down the runway, Chief Allan Adam was finally able to breathe freely again. He had just posted a live video from the Fort Chipewyan airport on the evening of May 31, documenting the last flight out with evacuees fleeing impending disaster. A wildfire was advancing approximately seven kilometres from his remote community, which is accessible only by boat or plane. But the relief was short-lived. The straight-shooting leader of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, one of three Indigenous communities in Alberta who call Fort Chipewyan home, was abruptly hit with biting pain.
Wildfire smoke muddled the New York City skyline on Tuesday. Many people experienced the eerie threat mainly by scrolling through social media. But others experienced it in their bodies. “My eyes were burning,” said UPS package driver Matt Leichenger, who was making deliveries in Brooklyn. “My throat was scratchy. By lunchtime, I was feeling dizzy and nauseous.” Eventually, he got himself a surgical mask, he said, pausing momentarily to cough while we spoke on the phone. “It got a little bit better, but I was still blowing snot.” News stories showed a veil of smoke stretching from Wisconsin to Alabama—but UPS didn’t say anything to its workers.
As smog flows in from wildfires in Canada, New York City is now by far the most polluted city in the world. At one point on June 7, the air quality index measured at an astonishing 377, the worst air quality level in the city’s history. Breathing in this air for 24 hours would be the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes. The city is now ranked at a Code Maroon, the most severe air quality alert indicating that the air is hazardous to breathe. To highlight the uniqueness of this moment: historically, NYC does not rank above the worst 3,000 cities for air quality across the globe. New Yorkers are back to wearing the N-95 masks worn primarily at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each time a fire breaks out in Northern California, local activist Quinn Redwoods and their collaborators spring into action. Walking through Oakland, Redwoods distributes masks to as many people as they can. They hand out masks in places where no one else is paying attention, like crowded underpasses where unhoused people have no options to escape the smoke. They’ll even stop UPS drivers to offer them a mask. Redwoods describes the activity as “organically emerging.” It all started back in 2017 during the Tubbs Fire, when it was so smoky in the San Francisco Bay Area it wasn’t safe to be outside.
The frequency and extent of wildfires are increasing all over the world. In South America, Brazil has had the highest incidence of forest fires in recent years. In 2019, during the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, fires in the Amazon made headlines around the world. For the first time on record, the smoke from the forest fires in the Amazon reached São Paulo, the largest city in South America, more than 1,600 miles to the southeast of the burned regions. And in 2020, one third of the Pantanal wetlands biome was burned (11 million acres), leaving an estimated wildlife death toll of over 17 million animals. Despite the large fires of 2019 and 2020 associated with higher deforestation rates in the Amazon, the Brazilian government has not instituted any additional public policy to fight forest fires.
San Francisco - Pacific Gas & Electric was charged Friday with involuntary manslaughter and other crimes after its equipment sparked a Northern California wildfire that killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes last year, prosecutors said. It is the latest legal action against the nation’s largest utility, which pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a 2018 blaze ignited by its long-neglected electrical grid that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century. Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the 31 charges, including 11 felonies, against PG&E, saying it failed to perform its legal duties and that its “failure was reckless and criminally negligent, and it resulted in the death of four people.”
Portland, United States - Hunter Bombadier has spent the better part of the past year protesting for an end to police violence and anti-Black racism – and supporting communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. That is how the 33-year-old member of Symbiosis, a network of left-wing organisations across the United States, was ready to help when massive wildfires broke out south of Portland, Oregon, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. “We were able to use the programming and infrastructure we already had,” Bombadier told Al Jazeera in a recent phone interview.