When These California Wildfires Go Out, New Ones Will Come
“Paradise is gone,” resident Sue Brown told the Los Angeles Times after witnessing the devastation from the Camp fire, which is now the largest fire in California history. Brown said she and her husband had planned to spend the rest of their lives in Paradise, a city of about 27,000 in the Sierra Nevada foothills about two hours north of San Francisco. But now the entire town is in ashes. The Camp fire has burned more than 110,000 acres and consumed 6,713 structures. Twenty-nine people have died. And it’s still burning. Southern California is also ablaze. In the hills around Malibu, the Woolsey fire has consumed 83,000 acres and forced more than a quarter-million people to evacuate.
I remember Paradise. I have driven through it while visiting family, who live just north of the town, or on my way to a cabin we used to have in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I remember Paradise because the name always struck me as so hopeful, even if the town, itself, seemed ordinary, with modest ranch houses set among scattered oak trees and pines. People have ATVs in the garage and horses on a few acres of land out back. On clear days, you can see the outline of the Sierra Nevada mountains on the horizon. This is not elite treehugger California; Butte County, which includes Paradise, was a Trump stronghold in the 2016 election.
President Trump, however, doesn’t know this, or if he does, he doesn’t care. Over the weekend, while Paradise was aflame and people burned to death in their cars as they tried to escape, Trump was flopped in a posh hotel room in Paris, where, on account of rain, he skipped out on ceremonies to honor American soldiers who had died in World War I. Instead, he tweeted about fires in California, blaming it all on forest management and threatening to withhold federal aid from the state:
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
If Trump had ever been to Paradise, or if he spent 30 seconds considering the fate of the people who lived there, he would know that there are no forests to manage in Paradise, just as there are none in Malibu. Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice called Trump’s tweet “dangerously wrong.” Rice ripped the president for playing politics with fire, especially when people’s lives were on the line. “The president’s message attacking California and threatening to withhold aid to the cataclysmic fires is ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as to the men and women on the front lines.”
In 2018, fighting wildfires is inseparable from fighting climate change. As climate scientist Danial Swain points out in an excellent thread, subtle changes in wind and rainfall patterns in California, as well as the fact that 2018 was the warmest summer since 2014 (four of the five warmest summers on record in California have occurred in the last five years), have turned the state into a tinderbox.
But Trump can’t talk about that, and not just because he doesn’t understand the difference between science and voodoo. He can’t talk about climate change because if he did, he would have to answer questions about why his administration is so deeply soaked in fossil fuel money, why he installs fossil fuel industry bag men like Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler to run the EPA, and why his administration has tried to undermine or kill virtually every climate-related policy on the books, including the Paris Climate agreement. Talking about climate change would also force Trump to admit that climate change is a global problem that he needs to work together with other nations to solve, and most of all, that he gives a shit about the kind of world our kids will inherit.
Instead of doing any of that, Trump threatens to withhold aid from people who are literally burning to death in wildfires. And some of those people, presumably, voted for him. This is a thank you note, Trump-style.
But as grotesque as his behavior has been, Trump is not responsible for the burning of the Golden State. We — and when I say “we,” I’m talking about rich westerners who dump the majority of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere — have known about the risks of climate change for 30 years or more, and we have collectively decided to do virtually nothing about it. Sure, there have been marches and rallies and speeches and books and movies about the risks of climate change. And yes, California has passed landmark legislation to reduce carbon pollution in the state. But climate change is a global problem. And globally, we have shirked our responsibility to reduce the fallout of climate chaos. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere just keeps going up, up, up.
Consider the 2018 election results. In Washington state, hardly a stronghold of Big Coal and Big Oil, a carbon tax initiative failed. In Arizona, a proposal to require 50 percent of solar power by 2050 was defeated. Neither of these were radical ideas, and neither were close to the scale of change necessary to deal with the climate problem. The fossil fuel industry spent millions of dollars fighting these measures, but, if voters really believed climate change was an urgent problem, they would have voted “yes”. They didn’t.
So here we are, watching California burn once again. And when these fires are extinguished, new fires will ignite soon enough and more homes will burn and more people will die. On the coasts, the seas will rise and bigger storms will hit. Droughts will parch cities. Intense heat waves will cook people’s lungs. This is the world we have created for ourselves. We all live in Paradise now.