Editorials

While Congress fiddles, wildfire ravaged California burns

Firefighters north of Big Sur battle the Soberanes Fire in August. Nearly contained, it is now the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history.
Firefighters north of Big Sur battle the Soberanes Fire in August. Nearly contained, it is now the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. The Associated Press file

The Soberanes Fire near Big Sur has been burning for 2 1/2 months and is the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. Wildfire season is year-round, and towering firenadoes are now commonplace.

So far this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has dealt with 5,340 wildfires covering nearly 150,000 acres, an increase of 27 percent compared to last year. Record high temperatures and bark beetles have fueled the fire risk.

Climate change has made wildfires worse, and this week climate scientists quantified just how much worse. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at the University of Idaho and Columbia University found that more than half of the increased dryness in Western forests, and of the lengthened fire season, is due to man-made global warming.

Climate change has nearly doubled the area hit by forest fire since the mid-1980s, increasing fire-prone areas by 16,000 square miles. So picture a swath of dry brush and dead trees the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts, or, in California terms, four times the size of Los Angeles County. Now light a match.

Clearly this is an urgent concern, and one that California has sought urgently to deal with. This state has 20 million acres of forest, nearly half of which are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire due to dense vegetation and tens of millions of dying trees. In the past four years, the state has spent $250 million on fire prevention, with $33 million more in cap-and-trade money for forest health projects. Lawmakers have directed utilities and state energy agencies to contract for electricity with biomass plants that pull clean energy from deadwood.

But while the state struggles to do its part, federal dollars have become scarcer. The U.S. Forest Service, for instance, has had to cut $200 million in recent years from programs to thin forests and conduct controlled burns because so much of its budget now goes to fighting the fires themselves.

California has borne the brunt of those cuts, despite the expanses of federal land here. And a one-time federal allotment of $662 million last fiscal year did little to meet the long-term need, which is overwhelming.

It is an election year, and Republicans who dominate the House and Senate may be preoccupied with the catastrophe at the top of their ticket. But it is a disgrace that Congress is gridlocked on this problem, especially because Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy comes, as he does, from Bakersfield. While Donald Trump consumes the nation’s bandwidth, and Washington, D.C., fiddles, the West burns.

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