The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fire, flood and heat disasters are an indictment of decades of poor planning

Climate change adds urgency for action

An emergency worker walks past a pile of debris near damaged houses in Mayschoss, Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany, on July 21 after devastating floods hit the region. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

Floods sweeping through villages in Germany and engulfing subway stations in China. A town scorched to ruins in British Columbia. Hundreds dying in triple-digit heat in the Pacific Northwest. Are these disasters the face of climate change?

Actually, these disasters are the face of decades of poor planning and inadequate societal interventions. Climate change is simply casting a light on these disasters by making their outcomes more grim.

To better withstand future disasters, we must recognize that they have more to do with humans carelessly getting in nature’s way rather than nature itself. The prospect of more extreme weather due to climate change only makes the matter more pressing.

When wildfires spill into communities, it is often forgotten that they are mostly a natural phenomenon and a necessary part of many ecosystems. These forests burn as renewal, not destruction; nature needs periodic fires to thrive.

Calamity becomes inevitable when we build in burnable areas without taking measures to counter fire damage. Then, climate change exacerbates the situation. With higher temperatures, longer dry periods and higher evaporation rates, landscapes become drier, ignite more readily and burn more ferociously.

Lytton, British Columbia, had been settled for centuries before it set Canada’s national temperature record three days in a row and then burned to the ground in late June. But while the heat was unusual (for now), the vulnerability to fire was not. Wildfires had ripped through the town before, including three times from 1931 to 1949. They chose to rebuild.

We must adopt planning and construction advice long before the first smoke puff appears over the horizon, so that fires whip past our properties without setting them alight. Plant fire-resistant species in gardens. Remove litter and debris while placing woodpiles away from buildings. Use fire-resistant building materials.

And no one should assume that we can ever make our abodes completely fireproof. Be ready to evacuate safely while being psychologically and financially prepared to return to only ashes.

Similarly, we must plan better for floods and build our cities and communities to withstand them. The European countries that were recently engulfed by floodwaters had received fairly precise warnings of extreme rainfall days before.

In aftermath of devastating floods, Germans wonder what more could have been done

But days of warning could not overcome centuries of escalating flood risk. Altena, Germany, which was deluged last week, had flooded regularly through the decades, according to a 1998 study.

Expanding development around Europe has paved over green space and channeled rainwater into rivers. Then, when the torrents hit, waterways overflow and buildings are swamped. We settle on the dry floodplains and forget what they are.

Certainly, waterways have been valuable transportation routes adjacent to commercials areas. We need homes, and river views can improve quality of life. But we need to accept the local flood vulnerabilities we create and think through how to overcome them.

Heat waves are another example of a hazard we have a long history of enduring but have not always prepared for, with tragic consequences.

Hundreds of older adults, many of them frail, died in notorious heat-related disasters, such as Chicago in 1995 and Paris in 2003, because they were socially isolated and did not or could not get help. Hundreds also died in late June in the Pacific Northwest and Canada amid this summer’s heat wave.

Most heat-related deaths are preventable. We save lives by opening public cooling centers, not forcing outdoor workers to endure extreme temperatures, and checking on those most at risk.

Heat waves are dangerous. Isolation and inequality make them deadly.

Cities should have plans for targeting intervention to vulnerable groups during heat waves and other disasters. Climate change only makes it more imperative.

To enact any recommended measure for reducing disaster impacts requires resources and knowledge. Preparing for and preventing disasters is in the hands of society and should have been done yesterday. Climate change is now a catalyst for doing so and can guide our investments.

Ilan Kelman is a professor of disasters and health at University College London and a professor at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway. His research connects disasters and health, integrating climate change into both.