Hundreds still missing in California wildfires
California officials were searching for almost 700 missing people this week after two monstrous wildfires—one the most destructive in state history—incinerated 400-plus square miles and 13,000 homes and created giant tent villages of thousands of displaced people. In Butte County, north of Sacramento, the Camp Fire had left 79 dead and transformed the once bucolic mountain community of Paradise into an ash-blanketed ghost town. “I don’t have any word to describe it,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea of the fire’s damage, which he said had caused “so much destruction and regrettably so much death.” Meanwhile, the Woolsey Fire outside Los Angeles was mostly contained after damaging or destroying more than 1,200 homes and killing three people in the celebrity-studded enclave of Malibu. Smoke from the blazes degraded air quality throughout the state, particularly in Sacramento and San Francisco, and began drifting east. One firm estimated that statewide insurance losses might reach $13 billion.
On a tour of the charred remains of Paradise, President Trump had an awkward meeting with two Democratic critics, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom. The president struck a more conciliatory note than he had last week, when he blamed state officials for mismanaging forests. “We’re all going to work together,” Trump said. “I have never seen anything like this in California. It’s total devastation.” But Trump also said he wouldn’t change his opinion on the role of forest management in wildfires, claiming that Finland avoids wildfires by raking forest floors. That claim was widely mocked in Finland. (See The World at a Glance.)
What the columnists said
Gov. Brown is right: “We’re in a new abnormal,” said Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News. From 1980 to 1990, state wildfires torched 300,000 to 400,000 acres annually. In 2017, that figure leaped to 1.4 million. So far, this year, it’s 1.8 million. Many factors are causing this surge in wildfires, but climate change is clearly the most important, making trees and underbrush dry as tinder, so they easily erupt into “walls of flame hundreds of feet tall.” It will only get worse if California’s state agencies, businesses, and homeowners don’t act, said The Sacramento Bee in an editorial. We must bury power lines that currently run through trees and spark fires, stop building homes in fire-prone areas, “improve forest management” by cutting down more trees, and thin vegetation along forest roads, which can burst into flame with a single discarded cigarette.
We also have to return to “controlled burns” that prevent the buildup that leads to uncontrolled wildfires, said Susan Shelley in The Orange County Register. Environmentalists objected to these once common strategic burns on air-quality grounds, but the price we pay is “increased vulnerability” to catastrophic fires that end up filling the air with more pollution than the burns would have—and at a far greater human cost. It’s “too late” for the victims of the Woolsey and Camp fires, “but not too late for the victims of the next one.” ■