Over the past week, two different fires in Louisiana led people to be evacuated from their homes. It’s been a historically hot and dry summer in the state, which has led to an unprecedented fire season, with 441 blazes in the month of August alone. But only one of the conflagrations that led to the mandatory evacuations was a wildfire — the Tiger Island Fire, in Beauregard Parish parish, which is the largest in state history. The other was a more familiar type of Louisiana disaster: an explosion at an oil refinery.
The Gulf Coast is one of those places where you can see the cause and effect of climate change in heightened contrast: Louisiana is home to 15 oil refineries, supplying one-sixth of the nation’s petroleum products, and many of those facilities are located on coastal land that might not exist come the turn of the next century.
The combination of oil refineries and land prone to hurricane flooding and sea-level rise is sadly sort of familiar at this point. But this summer’s fires (forest and refinery alike) present a whole new kind of drama that highlights how the continued reliance on fossil fuels is dramatically exacerbating climate change — to the point that a state known for being hot and humid is having a record-smashing fire season.
The Tiger Island fire doubled in size over the past weekend, and at 33,000 acres and counting, only half of it has been contained. There has been one death attributed to the fire, and at least 20 buildings have gone up in flames. When the fire was moving toward the southwestern Louisiana town of Merryville last Thursday, all 1,200 residents had to quickly be evacuated.
“Nobody alive in Louisiana today has ever seen these conditions. It has never been this hot and dry for this long,” Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said in a press conference on Friday. While Edwards is far better on climate issues than, say, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, he’s not about to start shutting down the state’s oil refineries, which are both big carbon emitters and big business.
The fire at the Marathon Petroleum Garyville Refinery broke out Friday, when the hydrocarbon naphtha was released from a storage tank and ignited. While Marathon officials said that the fire was contained to the facility, everyone living within two miles of the refinery was put under a mandatory evacuation order as a thick black plume of toxic smoke rose above the flames.
Garyville, like the greater New Orleans metropolitan area that it’s a part of, is about half Black, and is part of the infamous Cancer Alley. Stretching along the Mississippi from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Cancer Alley is home to many a facility like Marathon — the third largest refinery in the country—which are cheek-and-jowl with poor, predominantly Black towns that suffer from a host of health problems related to their polluting industrial neighbors. One local news story about the Garyville refinery fire describes a house sitting “behind the Marathon Petroleum plant fence line.”
It’s been abundantly clear for a long time that living in such proximity to a refinery is bad for your health — they don’t call it Cancer Alley for nothing. Similarly, we know very well that the carbon emissions from refineries and the gas and other hydrocarbon products they produce are making climate change worse. But thanks to a 2022 study, we now know just how much carbon is coming from this short stretch of river, which accounts for just 5% of total land in Louisiana: half of the state’s total emission.
After burning for three days, the refinery fire was fully extinguished on Monday. With so many wildfires burning, and the Tiger Island fire in particular growing so rapidly, it’s likely to quickly fall out of the headlines. But as Louisiana continues to burn, let’s not forget why the state is having such a hot, dry, and incendiary summer.