United States: Trump shifts blame for catastrophic fires

September 16, 2020
Smoke blanketing the San Francisco Bay. Photo: Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons - CC by 2.0.

The world has seen the images of the fires raging along the Pacific Coast of the United States, from the Canadian to the Mexican borders.

As of September 15, there are about 100 large fires, and many smaller ones, raging in Washington, Oregon and California. A blanket of unhealthy smoke covers much of these states, creating apocalyptic scenes.

The smoke has spread to states further east, including Idaho, Colorado and Nevada. Fires have been reported there also.

One apocalyptic scene in the San Francisco Bay Area was when people awoke to a dusky orange sky. Street lights that normally came on only at night remained lit throughout the morning. No sun rays penetrated the smoke, which was mixed with fog — many solar panels did not produce electricity that day.

A photo of downtown San Francisco in the early afternoon showed dark streets, cars with their headlights on, buildings lit up and an orange sky. It felt biblical.

The fires first erupted in California in August. In the past month, more than 20,000 square kilometres of land has burned across three states.

An article in the New York Times about the California fires said: “The crisis facing the nation’s most populous state is more than just an accumulation of individual catastrophes.

“It is also an example of something climate experts have long worried about, but which few expected to see so soon: a cascading effect, in which a series of disasters overlap, triggering or amplifying each other."

Roy Wright, who directed resilience programs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency until 2018 and who grew up in California, told the NYT: “You’re toppling dominoes in ways Americans haven’t imagined.

“It’s apocalyptic."

The NYT referred to the rippling impact of simultaneous crises in California: “A scorching summer led to dry conditions never before experienced.

“That aridity help make the season’s wildfires the biggest ever recorded. Six of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred this year.”

Thousands of people have had to flee the fires and their intensity is causing toxic chemicals to leach into drinking water and into the air as smoke.

“Excessive heat warnings and suffocating smokey air have threatened the health of people already struggling during the [COVID-19] pandemic,” said the NYT.

“The threat of more wildfires has led insurance companies to cancel homeowner policies and the state’s main utility to shut off power to tens of thousands of people.”

Climate change

Another effect to be added to this cascade is global warming. It is causing hotter weather to creep north into new areas. This year, California’s conditions have now been established, for the first time, in Oregon and Washington.

These states were unprepared for the eruption of wildfires. Firefighters faced a new situation of rapidly moving fires. Officials had to urgently come up with evacuation procedures for people in the fires' paths. The population was also unprepared.

Some residents in Oregon refused to evacuate, believing rumours, spread online by President Donald Trump’s supporters, that “antifa terrorists” were lighting the fires. They said they would instead stay, with their guns ready to shoot these imaginary antifa arsonists.

Most of the fires on the west coast are occurring in high elevation areas. This has been the pattern in recent years in what some scientists now call the “first phase” of the fire season, from June through September.

But the situation in Oregon has been different. Timothy Ingalsbee, a wildfire ecologist and former firefighter and now director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology told Democracy Now! on September 14: “This past week, we’ve had over two dozen very large fires burning on the west side of the Cascades [mountain range]. These have been explosive rates of growth, tens of thousands of acres, several miles per day.

“It is natural for Oregon to have big fires in the mountains. What’s very freakish about these is to have these fires coming down the mountains, barreling down our valleys, marching right up to the doorsteps of major metropolitan areas like Portland and Eugene.

“The winds came screaming from deserts on the east side of the mountains up over, barreled down these valleys and just propelled these flames.

“Though some scientists hesitate to attribute a single event to climate change, these are exactly the conditions predicted by climatologists.

“When these fires erupted, in some cases, the wind blew down power lines in the dark of night, right on the edge of towns, and so people had no warning, and flames lapping at their walls, and they had to flee for their lives.

“The first crews to arrive there were not even able to engage the fire. They had to help people to evacuate. It wasn’t for a couple of days that firefighters were actually able to fight the fire.”

The situation in Oregon now is what we have seen in recent years in California. Fires are propelled by east winds from the deserts, usually starting in October, during what has been characterised as the fire season’s “second wave”.

Since 2017, there have been big fires of this type that have rapidly moved west, destroying cities and towns and resulting in many deaths. If this pattern holds, then what we are seeing in Oregon today will now begin to occur in California for the rest of the year.

Fossil fuelled

The unprecedented conflagrations already on the Pacific Coast may be just a prelude to what is coming.

People are beginning to call these wildfires “climate fires”, while Trump continues to deny that climate change even exists and blames the present fires on poor forest management by the Democrats.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other Democrats have attacked Trump for his climate change denial, but support the continued burning of fossil fuels.

California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom admits that climate change is behind the fires, but has approved more than 7000 drilling permits for oil and gas in the state this year.

Biden loudly proclaims he supports fracking. He even opposes the watered-down Green New Deal presented to Congress by NY Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, but which was never taken up, including in the Democrat-controlled House.

Poor forest management is a subordinate factor in the fires, but much of it has been the result of policies Trump supports, such as clear-felling forests and unbridled logging. These policies have been longstanding, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.

Because of cutbacks in many social services by both parties, the number of firefighters is inadequate. They are thinly spread along the coastal states, heroically battling these fires, which continue to spread.

“A very important point, though, is no amount of firefighters, engines, tankers or whatever will be able to handle a phenomenon like this,” said Ingalsbee.

“This is a climate-driven wildfire. Nature is far more powerful than us.

“Unless and until we get a handle on fossil fuel emissions, there’s nothing we can do that will really prevent these kinds of events from happening.”

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