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California wildfires: why a gender-reveal party got the blame, but shouldn’t have

At the time of writing there are 7,718 fires raging across California, 20 people have lost their lives, and nearly 5,000 buildings have been destroyed. The ignition of one of these fires caught the attention of the press, and the internet, more than others.

On September 5, an explosion of coloured smoke revealed the gender of a Californian couple’s soon to be born child, and simultaneously set light to over 10,000 acres of the El Dorado Ranch Park in Yuaipa.

Gender-reveal parties, relatively unheard of just a few years ago, have now become an important rite of passage for expectant parents in the US. Seen by some as an unhelpful reinforcement of binary gender stereotypes, these parties have long been the source of mockery by the internet. Years of one-upmanship have seen ever more extravagant reveals posted to social media – cake cutting, mass dance performances, balloons dropped from planes, and, increasingly, pyrotechnics.

So, when a gender-reveal party started the El Dorado fire, it was bound to draw attention. Memes and spoof articles soon appeared, and the mainstream media latched on to the story. The idea that the fires were started by human stupidity is one we actually find appealing, and almost comforting. But this narrative hides a very uncomfortable truth.

The perfect storm

California is not on fire because of a single gender-reveal party, of course. The El Dorado fire consumed just 10,000 of the 2.3 million acres presently alight. The west coast is ablaze because of a range of climatic changes. California has been baking in record temperatures for weeks, hitting a record 49°C in early September.

The heat has turned the state into a tinderbox. But it was unusually high humidity, thanks to an ebbing tropical storm in the eastern Pacific Ocean, that struck the match, sending plumes of moisture over California. High moisture and high air temperatures both day and night bred a particular type of storm cloud – one that produces very little rain, but huge amounts of thunder and lightning. August 16 and 17 alone saw more than 10,000 lightning strikes, sparking 376 fires.

California has long been linked with wildfires, but their size, frequency and number is growing. The ten largest fires in the state since records began in 1932 have occurred since 2000, with the two largest being the 2018 Mendocino Complex fire and this year’s LNU Lightning Complex fire. Scientists warn that climate change, by ensuring hotter summers, changing humidity levels and more storms, will result in ever more, and ever larger fires in California.

Why blame the party?

In many ways, blaming a single human event makes sense. Historically, the majority of fires in California have been started by them – downed power cables, sparks from a tyre blowout, poor choices like barbecues and this year’s fateful gender-reveal party. As these fires become more common, the severity of them no longer serves as a hook, so the press and the internet look for a human act to draw the reader in. An act of individual stupidity, doing something that is already widely mocked, is the perfect narrative.

But blaming one person, one party, one poor decision or one freak accident avoids the necessary reckoning with collective responsibility. It moves the blame to individuals, giving the most powerful perpetrators of global heating – a roomful of chief executives and their corporate empires – a free ride. It also erodes the sense of urgency that’s vital for tackling climate change.

The wildfires in California are being caused ever more frequently by natural causes like lightning. And where fires are caused by human carelessness, it’s the increasingly dry and scorched conditions resulting from climate change that make them so easy to ignite.

Smokey Bear is a fire safety mascot who popularised the phrase “Only you can prevent forest fires”. He isn’t all wrong. You can help prevent forest fires, through taking better care when walking in the woods. But the “only you” part of the message needs to be addressed. Reducing the number, frequency and intensity of fires in California will take global action, by governments and corporations, to rapidly scale down the greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change.

Blaming the party is easier. When comprehending the apocalyptic scenes playing out in the US, it is far more comforting to imagine that they are the fault of a single stupid person, than a sign of worse to come.

Imagining Apocalyptic Politics in the Anthropocene, a new book by Doug Specht and Earl Harper will be published by Routledge in 2021.

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