As the death toll continues to mount in California’s latest encounter with rapidly spreading wildfires, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) sees “deniers” of climate change as responsible for the catastrophe that has gripped his state.
Once again, horrific scenes of people running for their lives as their homes go up in flames raise the question Brown refuses to address in any serious manner: Why does this continue to happen year after year?
California’s arid climate, low humidity, and high winds – Santa Ana in the south, Diablo in the north – leave the state’s residents susceptible to wildfires. Droughts, some of them severe, are common and have been so for thousands of years. One cigarette carelessly thrown away, one campfire left unattended, or one lightning strike can ignite a blaze. But it is policies, both state and federal, in place for decades that provide a pathway for wildfires to become conflagrations that kill people, destroy wildlife, and ravage grasslands, chaparral, and forests.
State and federal forests in California are full of dead and diseased trees that should be removed, along with overgrown underbrush. But, to the extent that these forests are being thinned, it is at a snail’s pace. Prescribed burns, fire breaks, and adequate roads allowing firefighters quick access into forests are all a part of proper forest management but are largely absent from California’s government-managed forests. People managing forests on private land must deal with the state’s Byzantine bureaucracy to obtain permits enabling them to carry out fire prevention measures on their land.
As a result, the state’s forests and adjacent grasslands are a tinder box waiting to explode. Yet Gov. Brown has never called for an overhaul of these disastrous policies.
Similarly, the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) forces California to divert millions of gallons of water each year to the Pacific Ocean in a futile attempt to save the tiny delta smelt, a fish marine biologists say is beyond recovery. Yet Gov. Brown has never called for a reform of the ESA.
In 2016, the state’s General Assembly unanimously – 75 to 0 in the Assembly and 39 to 0 in the Senate – passed a wildlife management bill that contained a provision that would help local governments better protect residents from wildfires, including publishing maps showing vulnerable areas near power lines. And Gov. Brown’s response? He vetoed the bill.
Meanwhile, skyrocketing housing costs in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and elsewhere along the coast have forced what’s left of the state’s middle class to flee to the interior and in closer proximity to the lands the state and the feds have so disastrously mismanaged. When the wildfires broke out, they were in harm’s way.
Climate Conference as Diversion
In September, Gov. Brown hosted a high-profile global climate change conference in San Francisco at which he — joined by environmentalists, Silicon Valley oligarchs, Hollywood luminaries, hedge fund managers, and purveyors of green energy — railed against manmade climate change. All the while — far from the lavish conference center – the policies he either put in place or refused to condemn were setting the stage for the next round of catastrophic wildfires.
Actually, California’s climate is doing exactly what the state’s readily accessible climatological record says it should be doing. It is the failure of state officials, led by Gov. Brown, to take proper account of that record and to manage California’s resources so as to protect the public that is at the root of the tragedy unfolding there.