California Wildfires
Republican Policies Are Exacerbating California Wildfires

Trump and Scientists Fight Over the Cause of the California Wildfires

While the president blames the state for its fires, the wildfires continue to burn. Better climate change policies and forest management strategies are needed.
October 14, 2020
8 mins read

BOOM! The sound of thunder reverberated through my room, shaking me awake. My room lit up briefly and another boom sounded. No sound of pattering rain accompanied the lightning storm. Boom, boom, boom… There was no pause between the lightning strikes, which is rare for California lightning storms. I stayed awake for the rest of the night, kept awake by the sounds of the dry storm and the knowledge that California’s bone-dry vegetation would surely catch on fire with each strike. The next day, on Aug. 16, news came bearing reports of California wildfires.

The circumstances before the fires were perfect for exacerbating the flames. Heat waves assaulted California for the majority of the summer — heat beyond the California normal. According to the Washington Post, the heat wave broke numerous temperature records, including in Death Valley, which recorded one of the hottest temperatures on Earth at 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gusts of wind also blew through the state, whipping around tree branches. As if the last few months of 2020 have not been apocalyptic enough, the destructive power of the winds created a fire tornado in one California county. The dry lightning storm that had woken me up was another anomaly: The storm was so intense that it accounted for 11% of the average annual lightning activity.

All these factors added up to one result: more California wildfires. According to the Guardian, the lightning complex wildfires raged across 1.03 million acres, an area bigger than Rhode Island. It burned down forests, destroyed homes, killed people and forced thousands to evacuate amid a pandemic.

While California was battling the blaze, the president was silent. After three weeks, President Donald J. Trump finally visited California and met with Governor Gavin Newsom. While Newsom blames the fires on climate change and pushed for the president to do the same, Trump attributed the cause of the California wildfires elsewhere: poor forest management.

Repeating what he said in 2018, “‘You gotta clean forests’… [California has] many, many years of leaves and broken trees… so flammable.” Continuing with the same statements he made in 2018, Trump threatened to cut disaster funding for California, saying “Maybe we’re just gonna have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us.”

He not only ignored climate change and blamed forest management in August (at the height of the lightning complex fires) but also at the most recent debate on Sept. 29.

While Trump refuses to accept most scientists’ finger-pointing at climate change, his blame holds a kernel of truth — but not in the way that he thinks. California forests do need to be cleaned up, but not through raking leaves, expanding timber harvesting or using other human-made devices. Instead, controlled burns need to be used.

Controlled burns are when people purposefully set a fire on a controlled area to clear out flammable vegetation, which helps prevent massive fires from forming, allow new growth, reduce insect populations and prevent invasive species from taking over.

Ideally, controlled burns would happen at regular intervals, much like natural forest fires, and would be geographically spread apart. However, the US Forest Service has strict policies against controlled burns. In 1910, 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington were burned by a series of wildfires. After the Great Fire of 1910, the US Forest Service started to implement U.S. fire suppression policies, opposing controlled burns. US Forest had a firm perspective that all fires were objectionable.

In the last few decades, the agency has reversed some policies with new environmental and ecological knowledge. However, it is now facing new issues, particularly in California. Fires have become more frequent and bigger because of rising temperatures, extreme weather changes and drier conditions.

Controlled burns are no longer simple to do and fires are harder to fight. As California tries to catch up on a century of work, 20 million acres of land need to be tended to. Current non-controlled California wildfires would lead to vegetation growing back quickly, allowing devastating fires to return again and again, putting people and wildlife in danger.

However, only 3% of California’s land is owned by state and local governments. The majority of forest area, a whopping 57%, is owned by the federal government. Trump’s threat to prevent aid in the case that forests are not maintained better is not only callous but is also directed at the wrong people.

While the U.S. needs to adjust their forest management policies, a bigger culprit is causing the California wildfires: climate change. California’s average temperature has increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit, evaporating precious moisture and jumpstarting summer droughts. Climate change leads to less precipitation. For California, this means that winter rains come later and later, extending fire season by months. By 2016, 100 million trees had died in the Western states because of the lack of water, giving more fuel to the fires.

Fuel for the fires will increase large fires in a nonlinear manner, which means that California wildfires will exponentially increase. Additionally, according to Dr. David Romps, for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature, lightning strikes will increase by 12%. Lightning strikes like the ones that started the 1 million-acre blaze, as well as dry and hot temperatures, are fuel for fires. Climate change provides all the ingredients needed for havoc-wreaking fires.

Dealing with climate change is a long-term battle, made more difficult by people who refuse to acknowledge its existence. Trump’s administration has reversed many necessary environmental laws, endangering everyone, not just fire-prone states.

If the U.S. government does not fix Trump’s mistakes soon and actively work to fight climate change, fires, hurricanes, tornados and other natural disasters will pile up, destroying the lives of many Americans. During the 2020 elections, all eyes will be on how the presidential and congressional candidates plan on handling climate change. America, choose wisely and vote!

Aimi Wen, Duke University

Writer Profile

Aimi Wen

Duke University
Mechanical Engineering

Aimi is a mechanical engineering major at Duke University. She loves reading, hiking and baking.

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