The most important lesson Orange County can learn from Lahaina—and the other recent climate change disasters— is: take climate change seriously. Climate change turned this lush paradise into a crematorium.The result has been the deadliest wildfire in US history.
In the midst of the scorching summer of 2023, as many California cities experience record-breaking daily high temperatures, the bitter reality of climate change hit us like a blazing inferno. While hot summers are nothing new for the Golden State, the increasing frequency and intensity of these heat events are far from normal; July was the hottest month ever recorded. Amid the soaring temperatures, the daunting truth emerges: extreme heat is a public health crisis.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that since 2010, heat waves across the country occur on average three times more than they did in the 1960s. This is especially true for California, which is also expected to experience longer, hotter, and more frequent heat waves. Orange County in particular will experience the greatest annual increase in hot days by 2053.
Extreme heat amplifies the risk of devastating wildfires, triggering a chain reaction of destruction. Researchers found that the amount of land consumed by wildfires increased five-fold since 1971, and the primary driver of this is climate change. Such is the case with the devastating Maui fire, which was exacerbated by climate change-induced record-setting heat and drought conditions. Hawaii officials assert that the islands no longer adhere to traditional fire seasons due to these conditions, which have elevated wildfire vulnerability year-round.
Similarly, across Orange County heatwaves now commence earlier and extend later into the season, with a marked increase in intensity during peak fire season, creating circumstances that promote wildfires beyond the typical season and amplifying their severity during peak season. Examples include the fires in San Clemente and Laguna Niguel. The tens of billions of dollars associated with firefighting efforts, property damage, and long-term health consequences from smoke exposure place immense strain on budgets and resources. For 50 years, wildfires cost California about $1 billion annually, but in the past four years, this number leaped to $10 billion. Just in 2022, the smaller 200-acre Coastal Fire in Laguna Niguel alone cost $530 million.
In addition to wildfires, rising temperatures directly burden healthcare systems, increasing the prevalence of heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration, especially among low-income families and homeless populations. According to estimates from UCLA’s Center for Healthy Climate Solutions, California witnesses an additional 8,222 emergency room visits on hot days, with Orange and Los Angeles County alone experiencing an additional 1,950 visits, placing added strain on caregivers.
“High temperatures kill more Californians annually than any other type of natural disaster,” warns Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. Consequently, healthcare costs skyrocket as hospitals and emergency services grapple with the mounting burden of treating heat-related illnesses and emergencies. A recent analysis of insurance claims data in Virginia predicted that costs due to heat-related hospitalizations will increase by approximately $1 billion each summer.
Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s former Public Health Officer, wrote that heat waves also accelerate the spread of infectious diseases such as “H1N1, Zika and … Coronavirus” in humans. Additionally, a Berkeley study revealed that extreme heat and drought conditions are rapidly increasing Valley Fever transmission and promoting its spread to new regions in California, including Orange County. These climate-induced outbreaks have hidden costs of billions of dollars, as exemplified by Texas’ experience with the West Nile Virus outbreak that cost $1.1 billion.
Evidently, the consequences are far-reaching, impacting vulnerable communities, straining healthcare systems, and exacerbating the risks of wildfires. The cost of inaction is too high to ignore.
Actions local governments can take now include: 1) require new construction be sustainable and energy efficient; 2) provide cooling centers for vulnerable populations; 3) implement concrete heat and wildfire preparedness plans; 4) require shade and water breaks for outdoor workers; 5) conduct further research on climate-related healthcare costs to inform policy; and 6) educate the public, especially young people, about the causes and consequences of climate change. 7) Adopt a climate action plan.
Khang Tran is a Research Assistant for the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon. He received his Master’s of Public Health in Epidemiology with a concentration in Climate Change and Health from the Yale School of Public Health.
Fred Smoller is the President and CEO of the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, which will be held on October 5 – 15 at the O.C. Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, California. See OCSD23.com
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