In all my life, I’d never seen anything like it. From where I stood in the mountains above Tahoe City, there should’ve been a breathtaking view of Lake Tahoe, but today all I could see was something that looked like what could’ve been Karl the Fog’s evil twin. This was in stark contrast to the clear blue skies I’d seen there a month earlier. The smoky haze blanketed the sky for as far as the eye could see — which wasn’t far.
I was struck by the fact that I could see such smoke even hundreds of miles from the Carr, Ferguson or the Mendocino Complex fires. That really showed the sheer scale of the blazes. Climate change incarnate, I thought.
That was last week — and the California wildfires continue to burn out of control. But while even as everyone seems to agree that this situation completely sucks, many Republicans continue to purport false narratives which deflect blame away from climate and onto environmentalists. According to President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, it’s those doggone tree-hugging-and-avocado-toast-loving liberals in California who are oppressing lumberjacks and hard working American farmers.
In a Tweet, which has since been deleted, Trump wrote: “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.”
Yeah, um, no, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of state fire agency Cal Fire. “We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”
Not to be outdone, Zinke chose the conspiracy route. During a radio interview with Breitbart News, he said that “environmental terrorist groups” are preventing the government from managing forests and are largely responsible for the severity of the fires.
This is what I like to call the “less fuel, less fire” narrative. It claims that wildfires were way less common back in the “When America Was Great" days when freedom rang and blue-blooded Americans could deforest on demand. As a result of this storyline, The Trump administration this week unveiled a new plan to fight wildfires with more logging. Climate scientists across the nation then let out a collective “le sigh.”
They say the best way to lie is to sprinkle it with just enough truths. Yes, forest management that selectively removes trees to reduce fire risk, a practice referred to as “fuel treatments,” can, under some conditions, help prevent large wildfires from spreading, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
But this can’t reverse the macro impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems.
The Union of Concerned Scientists writes:
“As the climate warms, moisture and precipitation levels are changing, with wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier. Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season — particularly in the western United States. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that wildfires will be more intense and long-burning once they are started by lightning strikes or human error.”
Climate change is causing The West to get warmer and drier, making it easier for fires to start and spread. Average temperatures in Western forests have increased by around 2.5 degrees since 1970, according to a 2016 Columbia University study, which has led to the burning of about 16,000 more square miles than would have occurred had temperatures remained the same.
These are leading to devastating costs in terms of risks to human life and health, property damage and state and federal dollars. In 2017, California spent nearly $1.8 billion fighting major wildfires. We can expect these costs to skyrocket even further this year and in years to come as the planet warms.
Wildfires perhaps are one of the least salient climate change impacts because their immediate causes seem so simple — an arsonist, a careless smoker or a lightning strike. Extreme storms, droughts or floods have an element of mysticism due to their perceived complexity, but we must remember that wildfires also are the product of complex systems. And climate change is setting those systems on fire — figuratively and literally.
Earth isn’t supposed to be a planet that has “fire tornadoes,” which, by the way, is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever heard of. But, thanks to climate change, they may be becoming the norm.
I’ll add the Carr, Ferguson or the Mendocino Complex fires to my list of reasons to continue the fight against climate change. I’ve got my eyes on the long game of changing our climate culture so that we can collectively understand that climate change, not environmentalists is to blame. Maybe then we will do something to stop it.
For now, the best we can do is help those currently suffering. I invite you to donate to The California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund, which supports intermediate and long-term recovery efforts for major California wildfires, as well as preparedness efforts.