It began on the morning of November 8, with 50 mile-per-hour winds roaring through Jarbo Gap near the Feather River, not far from the northern California town of Paradise. Just after 6 am, two PG&E power lines that should have been shut down because of the wind malfunctioned, and minutes later the Camp Fire was born. The fire was eating 80 acres a minute before long, and thousands were forced to flee a wall of flames that moved faster than any warnings ever could. People were incinerated in their homes, in their cars and on their running feet. It happened that fast.
Twelve days later, the Camp Fire stands as the single most devastating wildfire in California history. It remains only two-thirds contained, with at least 79 people confirmed killed and nearly 700 still missing. More than 12,000 structures and more than 250,000 acres have been burned. Paradise, home to some 27,000 people, is now a smudge on the map. The ongoing Woolsey Fire outside Los Angeles is about 90 percent contained and has claimed three lives, some 500 structures and nearly 97,000 acres.
Beyond the damage done by the flames is the heavy curtain of choking smoke that has enveloped the areas around the fires for hundreds of miles. “On Friday,” reports The New York Times, “residents of smog-choked Northern California woke to learn that their pollution levels now exceed those in cities in China and India that regularly rank among the worst. In the communities closest to the Paradise fire, an apocalyptic fog cloaked the roads, evacuees wandered in white masks and officials said respiratory hospitalizations had surged.”
“The smoke is overwhelming, dangerous and unrelenting,” Heraldsburg, California, resident Laura B. told Truthout late last week. “The schools in Sonoma County are closed again today, after being closed all last week due to the unhealthy air conditions for students who may have to walk or bike to school. The same for the junior college, another open campus with students and staff who do not necessarily drive to work or school.”
“I live in Petaluma, California,” resident Wendy B. told Truthout. “We all know someone who either lost their home or their life in the fires from last year in Santa Rosa and now a bit further away in Paradise. The Paradise fire (Camp Fire) is making our air quality worse than the Santa Rosa fires did. I may not be able to work this week because I work outside and the air quality is looking to be above 200 this week.”
The Camp and Woolsey fires are two of the 10 worst fires in California history, and have so far caused an estimated $19 billion in damages. Eight of the worst California wildfires on record have happened in the last two years. These disasters are increasing in number and severity due to a collection of factors — 100 years of forest policies aimed at stopping fires entirely rather than controlling them, corporate malfeasance on the part of companies like PG&E, unsafe construction zoning and poor water management, to name but a few — but accelerating human-caused climate change looms above them all.
“The ongoing California drought is the driest period in the state’s history since before Charlemagne ruled the Holy Roman Empire,” reported Science News in 2014. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown declared California to be in a drought state of emergency. “Drought and dry soil conditions widened to 100 percent of flame-whipped California from 26 percent a year earlier,” Bloomberg News reported this weekend. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, some 23,824,000 California residents currently live in drought conditions.
“Climate change is drying the state,” states the California Chaparral Institute in a Facebook post. “Dryer conditions lead to a more flammable landscape. We may see more of the kind of winds that powered the Camp Fire into Paradise. More fires will dramatically alter the kinds of habitats we are used to seeing. Non-native weed-filled landscapes that dominate places like Riverside County will likely become more common.”
The ocean is coming. The fires are here. The inexorable violence of climate change has arrived, and the president of the United States still believes it’s a hoax. Because he does, efforts to mitigate the onrushing, inevitable damage are not begun, or are deliberately undone. There is no good time for someone like Donald Trump to be in charge of the country, but there can be no doubt that his ascendancy has come at the worst possible moment for the planet.
Two days after the Camp Fire began, when the full scope of the calamity was becoming evident, Trump took to Twitter to weigh in with his thoughts on the matter. “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he wrote at 2:08 am. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
“I was watching the firemen the other day,” Trump told Fox News before departing for a visit to the disaster zone last Friday, “and they were raking areas. They were raking areas! They’re raking trees, little trees like this — nut trees, little bushes, that you could see are totally dry. Weeds! And they’re raking them. They’re on fire. That should have been all raked out. You wouldn’t have the fires.”
The next day, Trump stood with outgoing Governor Brown and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsome in a pall of smoke too thick for the helicopter rotors to clear. “You’ve got to take care of the floors,” he said with the ruins of Paradise still smoldering behind him. “You know, the floors of the forest, very important. I was with the president of Finland and he said, ‘We have a much different — we’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation, and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. And they don’t have any problem. And when they do, it’s a very small problem.”
At the end of the Paradise press conference, Trump was asked point-blank if he believed climate change had a hand in the deadly fires. “No,” he replied bluntly. “I have a strong opinion,” he continued. “I want great climate. We’re going to have that, and we’re going to have forests that are very safe. That’s happening as we speak.”
And that, as they say, is that.
“We need the governor to have [the] National Guard in place in the foothills during high fire danger conditions when there are high winds,” Chico resident Susan Sullivan told Truthout. “They can help with evacuation so the firefighters can fight the fires. If it is impossible to evacuate people, there has to be a safe space for them to gather. And we need sirens in the foothills to alert people, and bullhorns. We need lists of people in senior mobile home parks, rest homes and senior group homes, so that the vulnerable are accounted for and helped to evacuate in a timely manner.”
These are but a few of the sensible solutions being offered by those who live with the threat of wildfires every day. When the highest authority in the land disavows one of the core causes of the fires and counsels raking the trees as an answer to this highly complex problem, however, only a single certainty remains: There will be more and larger fires to come, and the price to be paid — in lives, health and property — will continue to rise.