Smoke and Smears: West Coast Wildfires

Robert Brooks Contributor
Smoke and Smears: West Coast Wildfires
Read Time: approx. 2:59

This is the top story from our daily newsletter published on September 16, 2020. To have this and more delivered directly to your inbox scroll down and enter your email or click here to sign up.

Smoke and Smears: If you live in places like New York City, Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia you may have noticed overcast weather Monday and Tuesday. According to AccuWeather Meteorologist Matt Benz, those aren’t clouds – that’s smoke. That’s right, “intense smoke from historic wildfires that is filling emergency rooms in the West is now clouding skies all the way across the nation,” John Bacon reports for USA Today. Although smoke reached the Big Apple yesterday, “the haze is so high in the sky, it should not affect air quality,” Lee Brown adds for the New York Post. “That’s not the case along the fiery West Coast, where the fires have killed at least 36 people and burned through an area larger than the state of Connecticut,” Bacon notes. “In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom compared breathing the air to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. In Oregon, at least 10% of emergency room visits are for asthma-like symptoms.” Zooming out, the economic damage from the fires on the West Coast is expected to cost between $130 billion and $150 billion. This is roughly the same as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane and takes into account damage to homes and cars, jobs and wage losses, infrastructure destruction, agricultural deterioration, and power outages. What’s to blame for this mess? Here are two trains of thought across the political spectrum:

On the Left: Left-leaning outlets, commentators, and politicians generally believe this year’s fires are a result of climate change. This argument can be summed up nicely by Jeff Berardelli who says that the “wildfires and weather extremes [are] not a coincidence, it’s climate change.” Writing for CBS, Beradelli points out that “Right on the heels of arguably the West Coast’s most intense heat wave in modern history comes the most ferocious flare-up of catastrophic wildfires in recent memory. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, a 60-degree temperature drop over just 18 hours in Wyoming and Colorado was accompanied by an extremely rare late-summer dumping of up to 2 feet of snow. It’s not coincidence, it’s climate change. These kinds of dystopian weather events, happening often at the same time, are exactly what scientists have been warning about for decades. While extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models.” Susanne Rust and Tony Barboza of the LA Times agree. In their co-authored article they begin by saying that, “In 2001, a team of international scientists projected that during the next 100 years, the planet’s inhabitants would witness higher maximum temperatures, more hot days and heat waves, an increase in the risk of forest fires and ‘substantially degraded air quality’ in large metropolitan areas as a result of climate change. In just the past month, nearly two decades after the third United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was issued, heat records were busted across California, more than 3 million acres of land burned, and in major metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, air pollution has skyrocketed.” In summary, “What we’ve been seeing in California are some of the clearest events where we can say this is climate change — that climate change has clearly made this worse,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. “People who have lived in California for 30, 40 years are saying this is unprecedented, it has never been this hot, it has never been this smoky in all the years I’ve lived here.”

On the Right: Right-leaning outlets, commentators, and politicians don’t know if climate change is the sole reason for the wildfires. Julie Parrish, a former Oregon Republican lawmaker and a founding board member of the Timber Unity Association, wrote in the Washington Post op-ed section this past weekend that “Bad forest policies and political indifference kindled Oregon’s wildfires.” Parrish begins by saying that she is “a seventh-generation Oregonian, and like others who’ve paid attention to what’s been happening here for a long time, [she] knows better.” Parrish points out that, “Under an 80-year-old contract, responsibility for most forest lands falls to the state [which] has overprioritized recreation and environmentalist concerns such as ecotourism [because] in recent decades, political power in Oregon has accumulated in urban Portland and its surrounding suburbs. As a result, Oregon’s forests were allowed to become overgrown, creating fire hazards. The state has screwed up so badly that, in November last year, it was ordered by a jury to pay Oregon’s rural counties $1.1 billion for failing to uphold its contractual obligations for responsible forest management.” Parrish continues, saying, “Forestry management isn’t the only place where Oregon’s leaders have fallen down on the job.” For example, after witnessing California’s deadly 2018 Paradise fire, Oregon politicians should have seen that as a wake-up call. However, “no effort was undertaken by lawmakers to evaluate the safety of the state’s electrical utility systems. Now, coastal Oregon is burning because winds and overgrown trees knocked down power lines, sparking dangerous fires.” Parrish concludes by saying, “For more than a hundred nights, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) and the governor have tolerated rioters rampaging in the state’s largest city.” As a result, “the riots are stretching Oregon’s first responders thin, as state troopers have been dispatched to back up Portland’s struggling police department — just when those first responders could have been patrolling state forests protecting against fires. Oregon is a state that is losing control. The governor can keep blaming climate change, but that’s no excuse for ignoring problems that have been completely within the state’s ability to manage for a very long time.”

Flag This: The wildfires have also sparked a debate between the two men running for President of the United States. During a visit to California on Monday, President Donald Trump blamed forest management for the West Coast wildfires. Most left-leaning news outlets picked up Trump’s remark to Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, when the president said, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” Crowfoot responded: “I wish science agreed with you” to which Trump said, “OK, well, I don’t think science knows, actually.” Conversely, Joe Biden cited climate change as a primary factor. Right-leaning outlets like Fox News capitalized on Biden’s soundbite when he called Trump a “climate arsonist” who “won’t take responsibility for wildfires.” Is it possible that both climate change and bad forest management could be to blame? JD Morris thinks so and does a good job outlining why experts say the dual threats could be responsible for this year’s blazes. For example, Morris notes that fires have been burning in California for decades, if not centuries, “so much so that Native American tribes would regularly burn places intentionally,” however “state and federal officials in California did not embrace that practice in the 20th century.” Therefore, experts like UC Berkeley professor Scott Stephens believe that “To better contain the risk of mega-fires going forward, California will need to drastically expand its prescribed burning — and sustain the practice in perpetuity.” At the same time, it’s hard to ignore changes in the weather. “Recent research shows that warmer weather and less precipitation has more than doubled the frequency of autumn days with extreme fire danger in California. The situation is expected to worsen unless drastic action is taken.” As with other issues, the wildfires have become a black and white debate whereby both parties have latched on to one-sided rhetoric in order to appeal to their electorate. The political smoke and smears are only adding more fuel to the flames.