Finger-pointing as wildfires ravage California
The most destructive wildfire in state history tore through Northern California this week, killing at least 48 people and destroying more than 6,500 residences, while another blaze left two dead in Southern California and had burned nearly 100,000 acres when The Week went to press. The Camp Fire demolished the town of Paradise, 145 miles north of San Francisco, within hours, and hundreds of residents remained missing days later. Thousands of responders struggled to contain the fire, which at one point jumped 140 feet across a seven-lane freeway. In Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the Woolsey Fire lapped at the borders of L.A., destroying 435 structures and spreading devastation from mobile-home parks on the fringes of the city to glittering celebrity-owned mansions in the Malibu area. More than 300,000 Californians were evacuated, as people throughout the state were warned of dangerously smoky air.
President Trump approved federal funding for disaster relief, though days earlier he blamed California politicians for enabling the crisis. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests,” he wrote on Twitter. The latest outbreak continues a devastating year for California, where fire season is now year-round. At least 105 Californians have died in wildfires in the past two years, more than in the entire previous decade; this year, upwards of 5,600 fires have burned 2,100-plus square miles. In Paradise, county sheriff and coroner Kory Honea warned that even after evacuees return, “it’s possible that human remains can be found.”
What the columnists said
Fires are “relentless in punishing our mistakes,” said Silas Lyons in USAToday.com. Wildfires occur naturally, but California’s shortsighted policies created a public health catastrophe. For years, the state put out small fires, letting vegetation build up that now fuels uncontainable blazes. Despite this, said Stephen Pyne in Slate.com, developers erected towns in “the fire equivalent of flood plains.”
While “surviving Paradise residents lost their entire town” and “Malibu residents fled for their lives,” said The Sacramento Bee in an editorial, the president “turned yet another national disaster into a political sideshow.” No, Mr. President: The state’s forest management didn’t cause these fires. The Camp Fire started near Plumas National Forest, “which, like 60 percent of California’s forests, is not managed by the state,” while the Woolsey Fire began nowhere near a forest. Trump’s scolding acts as “accelerant on the broken hearts of our burning state.”
Abandoned buses, charred streets, one empty home after another, said David Wallace-Wells in NYMag.com—“Were we watching the news or the zombie apocalypse?” Scenes from California were almost too harrowing to believe. “When it comes to climate horrors, the real world is already outpacing our imaginations.” I worked as a firefighter in Washington state, said Anastasia Selby in Vox.com, and people in that field “are especially attuned” to the ways climate change puts us at risk. It will only get more dangerous, as rising temperatures and extended droughts create “the perfect conditions for ignition.” ■