On Thursday morning, as deadly wildfires fueled by drought and climate change caused power outages and forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes across three Western states, President Trump was tweeting about anything else.
New Mexico would not be “GREAT” unless President Trump is reelected, the president warned, and, he claimed, “America’s suburbs” will be “OVERRUN” with protesters and low-income housing projects. Trump attacked political rivals, including President Obama and Mitt Romney. He railed against efforts to send mail-in ballots to potential voters, which he sees as a threat to his electoral chances. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, California fire officials reported on Thursday that another life was lost as overnight weather conditions allowed “many fires to grow significantly with extreme fire behavior,” bringing the state’s death toll from wildfires to eight so far this year. Across California, Oregon and Washington, wildfires consumed large swaths of land and destroyed homes and businesses. Pictures of ominously red skies in cities across the Southwest and Northwest circulated on social media.
On Wednesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown warned that 35 major fires and multiple smaller fires could result in the worst loss of life and property in state history.
“Winds continue to feed these fires and push them into our towns and cities,” Brown said in a press conference. “Right now, more than 300,000 acres are burning across the state, which is the equivalent to over 500 square miles. In some parts of the state that are not burning, some of the worst fire conditions in three decades persist – dry air, dry brush and dry winds.”
Oregon fire officials were hopeful that changes in the weather on Thursday would allow for firefighters to make some headway, but they were still bracing for serious damage as fires continued to spread and the state confirmed at least three deaths, according to local reports. In Washington, multiple fires caused power outages, forced hundreds of families to evacuate and filled the Puget Sound area with smoke, according to the Seattle Times. More than 500,000 people have evacuated their homes in Oregon alone.
There are myriad factors that contribute to the size, intensity and number of fires that break out in the western U.S. during fire season, and climate change is a factor that impacts multiple regions at once. Ryan Richards, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has studied the impacts of wildfires on public lands and communities, said ecologists and atmospheric scientists continue to observe “abnormal” levels of dryness in vegetation across the West.
“This past month has really been kind of a perfect storm for making it clear to us what the scale of the climate crisis is going to mean,” said Richards said in an interview. “It’s just incredible the number of fires all at one time, some in places that historically burn but also some that don’t … you’re just watching what had been wildland fires turn into urban fires, and fire crews and agencies hit their capacity for being able to respond.”
As of this writing, Trump has not made any public statement of support for victims of the climate-fueled disasters unfolding in the Northwest, where Democratic governors and mayors have publicly clashed with the president as he attempts to turn conflicts between racial justice protesters, police and extremist right-wing agitators into election-year propaganda. Trump knows he probably won’t win California, Washington and Oregon in the presidential election, and he has focused attacks on “Democrat cities” in blue states. Trump routinely attacks or ignores anyone and anything that contradicts the narratives driving his reelection campaign – including his claims that white, suburban communities are threatened by left-wing mobs and people of color, and only Trump can save them.
However, as the raging wildfires make clear, communities in the U.S. are indeed under threat – from climate disruption. In 2016, researchers at Columbia University and the University of Idaho estimated that human-caused climate change caused an additional 16,000 square miles of western forest land to burn, nearly doubling the acreage that would have burned naturally.
Droughts and record heat waves in California and beyond have sucked moisture out of dead trees and vegetation, creating conditions for monster fires. So far this year, fires have consumed a record 3.1 million acres in California alone and destroyed more than 3,900 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Entire neighborhoods in Washington and Oregon have been lost, according to Oregon Gov. Brown and various reports. Trump approved a disaster declaration for Oregon late last night, but he did not bring up the fires at an earlier campaign rally in Michigan.
“This week’s events out West show that we are living in a time when the climate crisis is manifesting itself in these major disasters,” Richards said.
When fires erupted in California last month, Trump blamed California, saying “you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests” and made a vague threat to pull federal funding for firefighting and prevention because “they don’t listen to us.” Indeed, the brutal reality of the climate crisis is an inconvenient one for Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord and embraced the fossil fuel industry. The Trump administration has rolled back dozens of environmental regulations, many of them put in place during the Obama administration to reduce climate-warming pollution.
A White House fact sheet released on Tuesday detailing Trump’s “commitment” to “improving the environment” failed to mention climate change even once. Trump did not address climate change in a speech on Tuesday touting his administration’s “environmental accomplishments” either.
Now, as the West suffers another disastrous fire season, Trump’s silence speaks louder than words.