California wildfires could see spike in domestic violence apart from loss of life and property, say experts

A number of studies along with the WHO in the past have pointed out at the relation between natural disasters and domestic abuse


                            California wildfires could see spike in domestic violence apart from loss of life and property, say experts
(Getty Imags)

Devastating fire conditions across Northern California have made the situation worse as fresh blazes have erupted, leading to new evacuations, red-flag warnings and huge smoke. A pair of fires started on Sunday, September 27, including the rapidly-moving Zogg Fire that has burned several thousands of acres in less than five hours near Redding in northern California.

Amid the disaster, the National Weather Services has come up with a warning for all of the state's northern part as a heatwave threatens the western states combined with dry winds adding to the risk of more wildfires in a region that has already been turned into ashes. 

Embers fall around a photographer as the Creek Fire rapidly expands on September 8, 2020, near Shaver Lake, California. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in five California counties late yesterday as record heatwave temperatures fueled numerous wildfires over the Labor Day weekend (Getty Images)

However, only loss of lives and properties are not the only consequence of the wildfires. As it was witnessed in the past (like during the 2018 wildfires or Camp Fire in which 800,000 hectares were destroyed and nearly 100 people died), such natural disasters see a spike in domestic violence resulting in increased appeals to authorities for help. The Camp Fire was preceded by torrential rain and floods that displaced several thousands of people and the combination of the twin natural devastations left a massive social impact.

According to Vice: "Immediately after the 2018 wildfires in California, known as Camp Fire, the crisis lines at Catalyst Domestic Violence Services in Chico went dead. The crisis lines at Catalyst Domestic Violence Services in Chico went dead. But then about three months after the fires stopped blazing, the shelter’s phones started ringing off the hook, with more people needing shelter than could be accommodated, and survivors requesting restraining orders at higher-than-normal rates."

The Camp Fire was preceded by torrential rain and the floods that damaged a nearby dam in which nearly 200,000 people were displaced. After the region showed some signs of normalcy, Catalyst’s phones started ringing again. The Vice article said that the rise in calls in the wake of a natural disaster is not something new and it is not the only case with Catalyst either. 

Drivers wait for clearance to take firefighting supplies into town on May 05, 2016, outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town (Getty Images)

In Canada, too, similar instances were seen. During the May 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, authorities at family crisis center Waypoints were already taking measures to deal with a rise in abuse because they knew that it was linked with natural disasters. Michelle Taylor, the center’s executive director, was quoted as saying: "We were ready for a 300 percent uptick."

She said instances of sexual assaults and abuse had gone much up higher compared to what it was during before the wildfires — at least 200 or 300 percent. Similarly, shelters in the northern part of the Golden State were also anticipating a spike in domestic violence after the current wildfires. The coronavirus pandemic has already seen a rise in domestic violence and the wildfires are set to make the situation worse. 

While studies are still being conducted to detail the link between natural disasters like wildfires, floods and storms and rise in domestic violence, a study published in 2018 reviewed reports that came out over a simple assault — attempts to cause physical harm to somebody — in Florida between 1999 and 2007. It found several counties in the Sunshine State reporting a rise of about 78 assaults a year (compared to their annual averages) during the state’s post-hurricane period in 2004.

The relation between natural disasters and domestic abuse was established by another study that saw the abuse of spouses went by more than 50 percent in Miami following a Category 5 hurricane that ravaged southern Florida.

Violence and abuse go up after disasters

The World Health Organization also expressed its observation in this relation in 2005. “Anecdotal evidence and a small number of systematic studies indicate that intimate partner violence, child abuse, and sexual violence are highly prevalent after disasters,”it said in a report and added that abuse of the elderly, youth violence and crime will also increase during the times of natural disasters and after.

Scientists have warned that climate change is causing natural disasters around the planet and it is adding to the domestic abuse. "Traditional forms of safety planning for domestic violence look different when there is a natural disaster," Jacquie Marroquin, director of programs with the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, a coalition of advocates and groups helping survivors of domestic violence, was quoted as saying by Vice.

"When a disaster first strikes, people are trying to figure out the next steps. So, 'There’s a fire; we need to get to safety'," Marroquin said, adding that it is difficult to leave behind a partner, even an abusive one, when lives are endangered. When a crisis first strikes, the aim is to help you and your loved ones overcome the storm.

On the issue of natural disasters contributing to a spike in domestic violence, Marroquin explained: "Domestic violence is all about power and control." She said when extreme weather events cause instability, consequences like displacement, isolation and insecurities over food, health and finances make people feel that they are not in control, resulting in more severe violence.

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