Canada, the United States, Greece, Spain, Italy, Algeria... Devastating forest fires set new records for 2023. 15.3 million 15.3 million hectares in Canada, 392,564 hectares in Europe, a hundred people dead in Greece and Hawaii, and 30,000 people 30,000 people displaced in Canada. The figures are alarming, just like the crisis scenarios that are unfolding, posing a major risk to our societies around the world.
At a time when global warming is increasing the risk of natural disasters around the world, every society needs to question its own resilience, and prepare for potentially devastating and increasingly unpredictable events. In New Caledonia or elsewhere, are we updating our procedures in the face of this context?
Let's take a closer look at the crisis in Hawaii, on the island of Maui, where 80% of the town of Lahaina burned over a period of sixty hours. The human toll exceeded one hundred deaths, making it the deadliest fire in a century in the United States. What happened?
Weather risks underestimated.
Before the fires broke out in Hawaii, several risk factors combined: strong winds reinforced by Hurricane Dora, extremely dry vegetation and below-average rainfall for a long period. All the ingredients were right for fires to start and spread. However, no preventive measures were taken. Jill Tokuda, an elected official from Hawaii, admits that the administration "underestimated the danger and speed of the fire".
An inappropriate response procedure.
When the fires were declared, the city's sirens did not go off. There were delays in sending alerts to residents by text messages on their smartphones, as well as on radio and TV channels. Inappropriate actions in this emergency context. Many residents found themselves unable to reach the 911 emergency number, and some who did manage to get through were advised to take refuge in the sea to protect themselves from the flames. Firefighters also found themselves in difficulty when faced with dry fire hydrants: the hoses had all been burnt.
Facing up to responsibilities.
In the aftermath of the deadly fire, Herman Andaya, administrator of the crisis management agency on the island of Maui, resigned. He said in a press conference that he had no regrets about not sounding the alarm sirens on the island, as they "are used mainly for tsunamis". Faced with the numerous failings of the authorities, legal proceedings for incompetence were launched by the inhabitants. People on the spot denounce the lack of warning, the errors that took place during the disaster.
The local electricity provider, Hawaiian Electric, is also accused of failing to cut the power supply, even though the weather risks were known, and risked toppling the town's power poles, beyond the fire hazard. Maui County has filed a complaint against them for negligence.
One risk can hide another.
One thing is certain in the case of Hawaii: risk analysis procedures focused on known and probable risks, such as the tsunami, without being re-evaluated on a regular basis. In a context of climate change and changing environments, risks need to be reassessed to keep pace with reality. While the cost of rebuilding the city of Lahaina is estimated at 5.52 billion dollars, the consequences for image and reputation are also colossal. Inhabitants' distrust of the authorities has become entrenched, not to mention the economic consequences for a tourist destination that has just simply disappeared.
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