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As California Burns, It's Time to Elect Climate Leaders to Deal With This 'New Normal'

The catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis aren't confined to the West Coast wildfires—each community will have to develop their own particular response

carr fire

Flames from the Carr Fire burn through trees and a road sign along a highway near Whiskeytown, California on July 27, 2018. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In case you missed it, California is beset with an unusual number of intense wildfires; the state is covered by smoke. In response, on August, Donald Trump tweeted: "California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws..." Hmm, so California "environmentalists" are responsible for the fires? Or is someone else to blame?

Twelve years ago, I wrote "Global Warming? Not in My Back Yard," pointing out that while most Americans are concerned about global warming (climate change), in general, they don't get excited about it, in particular, until there's evidence at the local level—because they have a lot of other issues to worry about such as the cost of their healthcare or housing or jobs.

Two years of extreme wildfires has gotten Californians' attention. Waking up each morning worried about air quality—because of the smoke—or worse yet, wondering if you will be forced to evacuate, has made everyone in California aware that we have a problem. The issue is what to do about it.

In Trump's full tweet, he said: "California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!" Even by Trump standards, this was an incredibly ignorant tweet. The wildfires are not being caused by lack of water or the absence of tree clearing. Most experts agree they are the result of dryness, due to the state's prolonged drought, high temperatures—July was the hottest month ever recorded—and, in many cases, ferocious winds.

As a native Californian, I've learned a lot about wildfires. (If you've lived here for more than a couple of years, you have fire stories to tell.) In October of 1991, the Oakland Hills Firestorm occurred about 12 miles from my Berkeley residence. This fire killed 25 people, injured 150, and destroyed 3,280 residences. It covered an area of approximately three square miles. In October of 2017, the Tubbs fire occurred about 15 miles from my west Sonoma County property. This fire (spanning Lake, Napa, and Sonoma Counties) killed 22 people, injured more than 100, and incinerated 5,643 structures. The Tubbs fire covered a much larger area than the Oakland Hills fire; on its northern edge the Tubbs fire stretched 12 miles.

Both fires were similar. They occurred in hot, dry conditions and were fed by intense winds from the northeast. The blazes started small and quickly became conflagrations; people in the path of the firestorms literally ran for their lives. (In both cases I knew folks who lost their homes.)

In neither case was California water policy an issue. (Sorry, Donald.) A recent article by Alice Hill and William Kakenmaster reported: "Many factors contribute to [California] wildfires, but two in particular greatly contribute to increasing risk: climate change and growing development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI)."

Many Californians attribute the violent wildfires to global climate change. (Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown called extreme fire conditions "the new normal" under climate change.) The most recent California poll found that two-thirds of respondents believe the effects of climate change "are already occurring" and 81 percent believe it to be "a serious threat" to the state's future. Not surprisingly, the attitudes about climate change split along party lines: only 24 percent of Republicans view climate change as a threat.

One of the ongoing wildfires is the Carr fire, northwest of Redding, adjacent to Lake Shasta. It's the most Republican congressional district in Northern California, represented by Doug LaMalfa, a climate change skeptic who says he "doesn't buy" human-made climate change: "The climate of the globe has been fluctuating since God created it." (A recent Guardian article observed: "Like LaMalfa, the citizens of Redding are far more skeptical about climate change than the average American is. In 2016, a team from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that only 35 percent of Redding residents believed that global warming would harm them personally.")

Notwithstanding climate change skeptics, most Californians agree that we need to take action to mitigate climate change. One of these is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Notably, the Trump administration has just taken steps to reduce California's ability to do this; on Aug. 2, Trump's EPA revealed plans to strip California of its right to set air-quality rules.

Hill and Kakenmaster noted that in addition to climate change, where homes are placed greatly impacts the destruction wrought by wildfires. They pointed out the destructive potential of placing houses adjacent to wildland vegetation, the wildland-urban interface (WUI): "In 2010, California had more people and homes located in the WUI than any other state in the continental United States—close to 4.5 million homes and 11 million people... [according to] the U.S. Commerce Department, 'Fires within communities surrounded by natural areas [the WUI] are the most dangerous and costliest fires in North America.'" (The WUI was a factor in the Tubbs fire, but not in the Oakland Hills fire—there the primary issue was housing density.)

The catastrophic impacts of climate change aren't confined to wildfires on the West Coast; each state has its own unique disaster profile ranging from drought to megastorms. Each state, and each community, will have to develop their own particular response.

At the national level, it's time to take climate change seriously. Trump isn't going to do this. It's time for Americans to elect leaders who have the intelligence and the resolve to deal with "the new normal."

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Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley Quaker, activist, and writer.  In other life he was a Silicon Valley executive — co-founder of Cisco Systems.

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