By Gordon Williams
When you’re the executive director of the Greater Inland Northwest Red Cross chapter, wildfires; their cause, frequency, and community impact, are never far from mind. So, when Ryan Rodin was invited to speak to the Spokane Rotary 21 Club in May 2021, the opportunity to discuss that threat seemed hard to pass up.
“My speech evolved into a presentation about climate change,” says Ryan.
More specifically, about how changes in our climate are bringing on natural disasters harder and faster than ever before. Since the mission of the Red Cross is to bring relief to disaster victims, anything that makes disasters more frequent and more destructive is crucial to how the organization carries out that mission.
It’s not hard to see why Ryan–and the Red Cross in general- is focusing on the explosion in climate-related disasters. Ryan’s chapter covers 15 counties in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. The region was ravaged by wildfires in 2020. Ryan personally responded to the fires that destroyed the Eastern Washington towns of Malden and Pine City that September. Ryan says he visited the Malden site almost every day for nearly two weeks, leading the Red Cross response there.
Washington was not the only state to suffer from natural disasters that year. “There were 22 billion-dollar disasters nationwide in 2020–disasters where the loss exceeded a billion dollars–the most on record,” Ryan says. At one point, a half-million residents in neighboring Oregon were faced with evacuation because of wildfires.
The 2021 wildfire season was just around the corner when Ryan’s spoke last May, and his words have proven to be prophetic. According to the Department of Natural Resources, Eastern Washington experienced 100 percentile conditions for wildfire risk, which means that 99.9% of days in the past 10 years have not hit the level of dryness that DNR fuel analysts are seeing right now. The role of climate in creating our wildfire threat seems even more indisputable than ever.
Ryan points out that Eastern Washington had the driest spring in 140 years–a drought that continued into the summer. Add to that the record temperatures that cooked much of Washington early in the summer. The combination of heat and drought has set off a wildfire pandemic throughout the Western United States.
Red Cross resources have been strained as never before responding to this outbreak of natural disasters. The Red Cross, in turn, has stepped up efforts to get its climate change message out to the public.
Ryan’s talk to the Rotary Group is one example. He also points to comments made in late March by Brad Kieserman, Red Cross vice-president for operations and logistics. In a message Red Cross leadership, Kieserman warned, “The past few days provided more evidence that disasters in the United States are transitioning from ‘acute-to-chronic’. Kieserman said the Red Cross was launching disaster relief operations at twice the pace of previous years.
That was followed on April 21 with the release by the Red Cross of what Ryan calls a “robust” statement on climate change. The statement said, “There is clear, scientific evidence that climate change is occurring. Helping people prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters has been at the heart of the Red Cross mission since our founding. It is through this lens that we see climate change as a serious and devastating threat for the 21st century.”
The Red Cross is working on its own response to climate change— “doing what we can to reduce our carbon footprint,” Ryan says. More disaster responses will be virtual–meaning fewer air-polluting miles driven and flown after disasters.