Kaitlyn Gee

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The Camp Fire of Northern California has been touted as one of the deadliest wildfires in California’s state history -- with over 40 confirmed casualties and only a quarter of the 170 square miles of fire contained. 

As a California native who attended undergrad in NorCal and grew up in East Bay, I am very concerned by this. Moreover, as an effective altruist, I’ve been thinking about how to maximize my ability to help relief and rescue efforts for the Camp Fire. 

Firstly, does the Camp Fire pass Effective Altriusm’s (EA’s) frameworks for vetting veritable causes? The key features of a worthy cause are: (1) scale of the issue, (2) tractability of finding and implementing a solution to the issue and (3) the “saturation” of the issue, or the relative degree to which there are too many or too few people working on the issue. The scale of the Camp Fire extends beyond simply those directly affected by the fires. My friends in the Bay Area have reported high air pollution, and the extent of the fire has sparked criticisms of forest management practices. Moreover, firefighters, first-responders and insurance companies are all impacted by the fire. I would argue that relief efforts are indeed tractable, and due to the urgency of the situation, there cannot be too many people working to help. Therefore, I would argue that it is a good cause.

Secondly, if we should be working on the Camp Fire, what should we be doing? One option is to donate to relief efforts, of course under the premise that the organizations selected have effective solutions and that the money donated will be mobilised to help those in impacted by the Camp Fire. In line with EA, we could also raise awareness and engage more people by posting on social media about the Camp Fire and suggesting judicious choices for relief efforts to contribute to. More fundamentally, the quintessential EA approach is to identify the course of action that leads to the most relief, which may not be obvious -- perhaps the way to help the most people in this case is to focus efforts more on containing the fire than rescuing those reported missing, for example.

Being an effective altruist, I have learned, involves drawing both from an emotional desire to do good as well as the rationality that numbers and reason may be the best guide for maximizing impact. With this thinking, there is not a single optimal approach for addressing the impact of the Camp Fire -- but the first step to putting EA to good use is to start engaging with these questions.