The Morning Jolt


California Burning

A firefighter works to extinguish the Bobcat Fire after an evacuation was ordered for the residents of Arcadia, Calif., September 13, 2020. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

On the menu today: a deep dive into how policy decisions have exacerbated the wildfires in the West, a farewell to Washington’s most sober-minded columnist, and apparently Peter Strzok has discovered how to travel forward in time.

Why the West Is Burning

If you’re following the news about the wildfires in California or other Western states, you’ve probably heard that the wildfires are exacerbated by climate change. Warmer, drier weather creates a lot of kindling-like dry vegetation that burns easily and spreads embers, and no amount of human firefighting efforts are as effective as rain. A lot of coverage of wildfires follows a simple formulaic theme: This is the wildfire. It is caused by climate change. Climate change is caused by electing Republicans.

You probably have heard much less about how much government policy and deliberate decisions can exacerbate the damage of wildfires. In late August, ProPublica did an important, detailed, and thorough work of journalism looking at how the fires in California are seriously exacerbated by national, state, and local policies that minimize the use of controlled burns that would limit the scope of naturally occurring fires.

We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.

Native Americans practiced controlled burns in the West long before the white settlers arrived. Then, for about a century, the U.S. Forest Service tried to suppress any and all fires, believing that fire’s only effect on the ecosystem was destructive. It was only in the 1960s that USFS recognized that fire could have a useful and good effect in small doses, so to speak. In those intervening decades, a lot of wild lands had an enormous buildup of potentially flammable vegetation.

If controlled burns are so effective and so self-evidently needed, why has California done so little of it? One factor is a familiar and frustrating story: “not in my backyard.” Homeowners don’t like the smoke and the charred, barren landscape afterwards. They either explicitly or implicitly believe that a fire can forever be put off until later.

Another factor is liability, as no one wants to start a controlled burn, have something go wrong, and get sued. The legal structure sets up all of the incentives to not perform a controlled burn:

Just about everyone the researchers interviewed described a risk-averse culture in the shadow of liability laws that place financial and legal responsibility for any prescribed burn that escapes on the burners. Private landowners explained how fears of bankruptcy swayed them to avoid burning on their property. Federal agency employees pointed to an absence of praise or rewards for doing prescribed burns, but punishment for any fires that escape. Federal and state employees claimed that negative public opinion — fear of fires escaping into developed areas and smoke damaging health — remains a challenge.

Limited finances, complex regulations and a lack of qualified burners also get in the way. For example, wildfire suppression has historically diverted funding from wildfire prevention, many state fire crews are seasonal employees hired during the worst wildfire months rather than the months when conditions are best for prescribed burn and burners who receive federal or state funds must undergo potentially expensive and time-consuming environmental reviews.

A Cal fire battalion chief told Mother Jones’ Delilah Friedler last year that controlled burns can take up to 18 months to plan.

And a third factor is environmentalists’ suspicion that efforts to reduce the amount of combustible fuel in forests are some sort of Trojan horse for corporations that wish to exploit natural resources. If we look all the way back to 2002 . . .

Sen. Dianne Feinstein blames environmental ally the Sierra Club for Congress’ failure to pass legislation last month to thin national forests to reduce wildfire threats in the West.

“You have a very polarized community when it comes to fire and how they view fire,” Feinstein said. ‘The Sierra Club roasted me.”

The former mayor of San Francisco has averaged a 91 percent scorecard rating from the League of Conservation Voters the past six years but confounds environmentalists by insisting that logging be used to help ease wildfire threats.

Feinstein said she was close to securing a bipartisan agreement with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, that would have sacrificed some trees to reduce fuel loads and make 7 million acres of forests near urban areas safer from fires.

“The Dianne Feinsteins of this world have every reason to be frustrated and angry. I think she felt herself a friend of that organization only to have them bite her as hard as they did,” Craig said. “She kept going to her leadership and got nothing. In the end, Tom (Daschle) did not want to put his people at risk taking a tough vote — which was the right vote — on something the environmental people have so effectively polarized,” he told The Associated Press this week.

Cartoonist Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt is a funny little book with a subtle but important message: A lot of people who say they love nature don’t really understand nature, and they can’t be bothered to learn about how nature actually works. They envision nature as a Disney-fied image of all creatures living happily and in harmony, and not the recognition that the death and decay of some living creatures is what allows other living creatures to survive, grow, and thrive.

Oh, and as Andy Ngo observed, there’s one other factor in some of the smaller fires we’ve seen:

A suspect arrested last evening for starting a brush fire was arrested again after he started 6 more small fires.

On Monday, September 14, 2020 at 3:37a.m., East Precinct officers were dispatched with Portland Fire and Rescue to a report of multiple fires burning along the west side of the I-205 freeway. Portland Fire and Rescue extinguished three of them while passing community members put out the other three. All were caught early. No one was injured and no structures were burnt. Officers located Domingo Lopez, Junior walking along the shoulder and arrested him. They seized a lighter as evidence.

Lopez was transported to a hospital on a Police Officer Hold for a mental health evaluation. He was issued citations for 6 additional counts of Reckless Burning.

How had this gentleman spent his Sunday?

On Sunday, September 13, 2020 at 4:35p.m., East Precinct officers were dispatched to assist Portland Fire and Rescue with a brush fire in the 9600 block of East Burnside Street. Officers saw that a section of grass along the I-205 freeway was burning. Firefighters extinguished the fire. No one was injured and no structures were damaged.

About an hour later, East officers were flagged down by a witness who pointed out the suspect in a nearby tent. Officers arrested the suspect, who confirmed he lit the fire with the device.

Officers seized a plastic bottle with a wick as evidence.

Officers booked Domingo Lopez Jr., 45, into the Multnomah County Detention Center on charges of Reckless Burning and Disorderly Conduct in the Second Degree. Arson investigators are also doing follow-up to see if other charges are warranted.

How many times do you have to set a fire before they don’t just release you to walk the streets until your court date?

Finally we could also try just telling our friends whether we’re having a boy or a girl, instead of launching an elaborate “gender reveal party” with fireworks in a drought-stricken local park.

Farewell, Robert Samuelson

Robert Samuelson, the economics-focused columnist, always stuck out for being so sober, clear-thinking, and direct. Writing for the Washington Post op-ed page, he must have felt like Judge Wapner at a Hell’s Angels rally. Samuelson’s final column keeps with tradition: hard truths that people may not want to hear but that they need to hear. “The quest for economic status and power pushes economists and their political sponsors toward exaggerated promises that lead to widespread public disappointment.” “People have a hard time changing their minds. Once their minds are made up, they are relatively impervious to argument, evidence and persuasion.” “modern democracies have a hard time making sacrifices in the present for gains in the future.” And brutal honesty for all of us who write about politics: “So far as I can tell, nothing that I have written has ever had the slightest effect on what actually happened.”

Apparently, Peter Strzok Time-Traveled from 2016 to Now

Former FBI counterintelligence officer Peter Strzok, on Meet the Press yesterday: “I think it is clear, I believed at the time in 2016, and I continue to believe, that Donald Trump is compromised by the Russians. And when I say that, I mean that they hold leverage over him that makes him incapable of placing the national interests, the national security ahead of his own.”

Gee, that sounds serious. We should probably investigate that, because if it’s true, surely there must be gobs of evidence to support that earth-shaking accusation. Hey, could we get some sort of trusted law-enforcement official to investigate this? Maybe former FBI director Robert Mueller or someone like that? Let’s give Mueller roughly two years to dig into this and see if he finds any proof.

ADDENDUM: Did you enjoy your weekend? For me, this is what football is all about: milliseconds and milliseconds of joy before the disappointment kicks in.


The Latest