Fid­dling while Cal­i­for­nia burns

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FROM THE COVER -

It’s fit­ting that Pres­i­dent Trump’s stop near Sacra­mento for a wildfire brief­ing Mon­day was be­lat­edly tacked onto a cam­paign and fund­rais­ing swing through the West. Trump has treated the fires as an af­ter­thought when he isn’t act­ing as a hu­man ac­cel­er­ant.

Trump is the world’s most pow­er­ful and prom­i­nent de­nier of hu­man­caused cli­mate change, the role of which has be­come un­mis­tak­able in the record­shat­ter­ing wild­fires that have rav­aged Cal­i­for­nia and its neigh­bors in re­cent years. While the pres­i­dent prefers to blame state of­fi­cials for for­est mis­man­age­ment, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment owns and man­ages much of the land that has burned. Nor can Trump claim the high ground on the state’s most im­por­tant wildfire­re­lated fail­ure, ir­re­spon­si­ble de­vel­op­ment, hav­ing dis­par­aged the most se­ri­ous at­tempts to ad­dress the prob­lem.

With warmer tem­per­a­tures mak­ing fu­els more com­bustible and fires more volatile, all of Cal­i­for­nia’s 10 largest wild­fires on record have taken place since the turn of the cen­tury; four of them, in­clud­ing the largest by far, are burn­ing right now. With much of the fire sea­son re­main­ing, the state has al­ready seen more acreage burn than in any other year in mod­ern his­tory.

And yet Trump, re­minded that Cal­i­for­nia’s Death Val­ley re­cently set what could be a global tem­per­a­ture record, as­sured state of­fi­cials with­out ev­i­dence Mon­day that “It’ll start to get cooler.”

His poli­cies have been as im­per­vi­ous to re­al­ity as his com­men­tary. His ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to roll back au­to­mo­bile mileage stan­dards set by Cal­i­for­nia and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­duce planet­warm­ing emis­sions, even though five ma­jor au­tomak­ers have sided with the state. Last month alone, the ad­min­is­tra­tion moved to ease rules re­strict­ing re­leases of meth­ane, a pow­er­ful green­house gas, and open the

Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

Although Trump seems to mis­un­der­stand for­est man­age­ment as a mat­ter of “rak­ing,” “sweep­ing” or “clean­ing” the wilderness, his fix­a­tion on the topic has more ba­sis in sci­ence than his cli­mate change denialism. Cal­i­for­nia’s forests have in­deed grown denser and more dan­ger­ous over the past cen­tury be­cause of fire sup­pres­sion.

The trou­ble lies in Trump’s ef­forts to lay the blame en­tirely at the feet of state of­fi­cials. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment owns more than half the state’s forests and most of the land burned in wild­fires over the past five years na­tion­wide, par­tic­u­larly in Cal­i­for­nia and the West. Last week, all 18 of the state’s na­tional forests were closed due to fire risks.

Gov. Gavin New­som and the U.S. For­est Ser­vice rec­og­nized the shared re­spon­si­bil­ity last month, an­nounc­ing a joint ef­fort to re­duce wildfire risks across a mil­lion acres a year through con­trolled burns and de­bris re­moval.

The state gov­ern­ment’s great­est cul­pa­bil­ity for the dev­as­ta­tion stems from its push­ing res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment away from met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­ters and to­ward wilderness ar­eas that are vul­ner­a­ble to fires. That leads to more hu­man­caused fires and more danger to lives and prop­erty when they burn.

The state’s Demo­cratic­dom­i­nated Leg­is­la­ture has re­peat­edly killed ef­forts by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D­San Fran­cisco, and oth­ers to end the re­stric­tive zon­ing that fu­els ex­ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. Here Trump could have pointed to a real short­com­ing on the part of the state he loves to hate — if he had not disin­gen­u­ously at­tacked Wiener’s ef­forts as part of a con­certed Demo­cratic at­tack on sub­ur­bia it­self.

The re­al­ity is that the wild­fires pose pol­icy prob­lems of such scope and com­plex­ity that we would be hard­pressed to solve them even with all the can­dor and co­op­er­a­tion that the pres­i­dent’s re­sponse has lacked.

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