The National·The National Today

Why catastrophic wildfires are razing so many communities

A deeper dive into the day's most important stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

A deeper dive into the day's most important stories

Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire early Thursday morning north of Ventura, Calif. Strong Santa Ana winds are rapidly pushing multiple wildfires across the region.

Welcome to The National Today, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here under "Subscribe to The National's newsletter," and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

Burning close to home

The searing images coming out of Los Angeles are all too familiar. Walls of flames racing across a tinder-dry landscape, and the scorched ruins they leave behind.

Four area wildfires have forced some 50,000 people to flee, destroyed more than 200 buildings, and threaten 12,000 more homes.

Firefighters battle the Thomas Fire as it burns past the 101 Highway towards the Pacific Coast Highway in Ventura, Calif. on Thursday. (Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images)
And with the Santa Ana winds expected to reach an unprecedented "purple" level today, with gusts hitting 130 kph — hurricane force — things are likely to get worse.

"A recipe for explosive fire growth," is how a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection described it this morning.

Such disasters are now all too common, as urban populations around the world expand into grasslands and forests.

Earlier this fall, it was Portugal and Spain. A year ago, 14 people were killed and more than 2,400 homes destroyed as fire swept through Tennessee's Smoky Mountains. And, of course, the devastating May 2016 blaze in Fort McMurray, Alta., which caused the evacuation of 88,000 people and destroyed entire neighbourhoods.

A weather vane is seen against the flames of the Creek Fire in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles on Tuesday.
The technical term for the problem is the "wildland urban interface," meaning that people increasingly want to live in what used to be unpopulated, uncultivated areas. In the U.S. alone, it's estimated that 60 per cent of all new home construction since 1990 has occurred in what used to be "the sticks."

And wildfires are now burning hotter and consuming more and more acreage each year due to global warming — this study found a 70 per cent increase between 2000 and 2005, versus the 1990s.

Our lifestyle choices also come with a substantial cost. As this CBS investigation notes, an average of 3,000 U.S. homes are now destroyed by wildfire each year — up from a couple hundred 50 years ago. And the U.S. federal government's annual bill for firefighting is $2 billion US.

One of the homes that burned in the Creek Fire that broke out in the Kagel Canyon area north of Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Homes can be protected from wildfires, but it's laborious and costly work, involving pumps, hoses, sprinklers and people to set them up and keep them running.

Sometimes even the DYI approach can work, though, as illustrated in this LA Times story about five strangers who grabbed garden hoses and saved a home in Ventura on Monday night.

But as the problem grows, we're going to need to invest a lot more money in firefighting, or find many more Good Samaritans.

A parting shot

Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live comedian and U.S. Senator from Minnesota, announced his intention this morning to resign his seat "in the coming weeks," bowing to pressure from his Democratic colleagues.

Seven women have now come forward to say that the 66-year-old made inappropriate advances toward them in the past, grabbing, groping and kissing them. Franken denies some of the allegations, but made a pointed observation in his speech from the Senate floor.

U.S. Senator Al Franken says he will resign his seat after seven women accused him of making inappropriate advances towards them. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
"There is some irony in the fact that I am leaving, while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has preyed on underage girls is running for the Senate with the full support of his party," he said, referencing President Donald Trump and Alabama Republican Roy Moore.

But while Franken's resignation dominates the headlines, he is far from the only man facing accusations.

John Conyers, a veteran Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Michigan, resigned Monday over allegations of groping and verbal abuse stretching back decades.

Warren Moon, the quarterback who led the Edmonton Eskimos to five Grey Cup championships and then played 19 seasons in the NFL, is being accused of sexual harassment by a former assistant at his sports marketing firm. The woman has filed a civil suit in California, alleging that Moon drugged and assaulted her, and forced her to wear lingerie and sleep in his bed during business trips. And this is not the first time he has been sued over such allegations.

As well, Jonathan Schwartz and Leonard Lopate, two longtime public radio hosts in New York City, have been suspended from their jobs over unspecified allegations of inappropriate conduct.

Gangster paradise

Police in Rio de Janeiro finally got their man — but it took 3,000 of them to bring him in.

Rogerio Avelino da Silva, better known as "Rogerio 157," was arrested Wednesday in a massive sweep of the Rocinha favela. One of the most wanted men in Brazil, he has been charged with drug trafficking, homicide and extortion by police.

Alleged Rocinha favela drug boss Rogerio Avelino da Silva, centre, nicknamed "Rogerio 157," is escorted by Brazilian Civil Police officers after being arrested in Rio on Wednesday. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)
The 35-year-old, who takes his nickname from the numeric code Brazilian police use for aggravated robbery, was found hiding in a house a few hundred metres from a high-security prison. He pretended to be a relative of the owner, but officers recognized him.

And judging by these selfies that were snapped down at the local station, the cops seem pretty pleased with themselves.

Rochinha, nestled in the hills near three of Rio's most famous neighbourhoods — Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana — is the continent's largest and most famous shanty town. And it had been relatively peaceful and prosperous for more than a decade. Tens of thousands of tourists visited the community every year in search of the grittier side of Brazilian life.

Rio's governor asked the federal government to send in 1,000 troops to help local police battle crime in the favelas. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
But that all changed last September when a serious gang war — the kind with running street battles, grenade attacks and a substantial body count — broke out. Hospitals, schools and businesses were closed down during the flare-ups, as was a major highway that runs next to the slum.

Rogerio 157 was allegedly at the heart of the violence. A former lieutenant of Antônio Bonfim Lopes — a.k.a. "Nem," the leader of the Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) drug gang — Rogerio 157 switched allegiances to the Comando Vermelho (Red Command). Then he and his new buddies at the CV tried to take over his old turf.

It's not a new war — the CV and ADA have periodically battled for control of Rio's 1,200 favelas since the early 1990s. But this was a major escalation in the fighting and it caught everyone's attention.

Rio, already deep in a financial crisis that has seen it miss payroll for cops and civil servants, and mired in an ongoing corruption scandal, was overwhelmed. So the city's new governor, Luis Fernando Pezão, asked the federal government to send in the army. More than 1,000 troops joined the battle.

Rogerio 157's capture is a big deal in Rio, but the arrest of one gang leader seems unlikely to stop the violence. Crime has surged since the Summer Olympics — and all its attendant security — left town.

Employing urban combat tactics, Brazilian army military police patrol an alley in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro in September. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)
During the first nine months of 2017, there were almost 5,000 murders in the greater Rio area, including the killings of more than 120 police officers.

It's a national epidemic, fuelled by drug traffickers and a spiraling economic crisis. Last year, there were 61,619 murders across Brazil, the country's deadliest year ever.

That's more than three times the number of murders in the United States. Brazil's population is 207 million. America's is 323 million.

Quote of the moment

"I can't figure out the logic behind this. I'm totally shocked. If the chinchilla could hear this, she'd be upset."

- Vancouver resident Jeffrey Oberman on why he's upset that Air Canada won't let him bring his 13-year-old support chinchilla, Mandzy, along on a flight.

Mandzy the support chinchilla. (Jeffrey Oberman)

What The National is reading

  • Music teacher sues after principal labels famous Canadian folk song 'racist.' (Toronto Star)
  • Australia officially legalizes same sex marriage. (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • Ghostly boats carry North Korean crews, dead or alive, to Japan. (New York Times)
  • Regina police eye purchase of a tactical armoured truck. (CBC)
  • San Francisco to restrict delivery robots. (BBC)
  • I made my shed the top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor. (Vice)
  • Man wants to know why his support chinchilla can't fly with him on Air Canada. (CBC)

Today in history

Dec. 7, 1969: Mel Profit, Toronto Argo and boutique owner.

The star tight-end opens an African-inspired, unisex clothing store on Yonge Street.

Mel Profit, Toronto Argo and boutique owner

3 years ago
Duration 9:29
Toronto Argonauts player Mel Profit shows off his new enterprise: an Africa-inspired clothing boutique called "The First Asylum."


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.