As if there weren’t enough fires raging in the West, here’s another: The slow burn among local officials who had to listen to President Donald Trump during his visit Monday.
Air Force One had barely touched down when Trump was on the attack, alleging that local leaders had courted disaster — and ignored his own forest-management advice — by failing to clean up the debris on their forest floors. Downed timber and fallen leaves, he suggested, were to blame for California’s recurring wildfires.
“When trees fall down, after a short period of time they become very dry — really like a matchstick,” he said. “And they can explode. Also leaves. When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the fires.”
A California official brought up climate change, but Trump was uninterested. “It will start getting cooler,” he said. “You just watch. I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Science does know, actually. The case for human-influenced climate change is well established. Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the science of climate change is no more based in reality than his minimizing (in public, anyway) of the deadliness of the coronavirus.
Closer to the mark was Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger to Trump’s re-election bid, who also spoke about the fires Monday. In his own incendiary comments, he used the words “climate arsonist” in reference to the president. It’s reasonable to call Trump to account for his negligence toward the climate crisis. But “arsonist” sounds like the rhetoric of the rumor mongers who blame antifa operatives for setting some of the wildfires.
Those rumors, entirely baseless, grew persistent enough in Oregon that emergency dispatchers complained they were being diverted from their duties. To be clear, there are plenty of mistakes contributing to the conflagrations in California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom admitted to Trump that his state’s forest management could be improved (even though most of that land is under federal, not state, control). And there is no justifying the impulse to build housing and other development in fire-prone areas. And then to rebuild. And to rebuild again.
All of that, though, is mere kindling. The real fuel driving these fires appears to be the dry, hot weather that has afflicted the West in recent years. Temperatures of 121 degrees Fahrenheit in Los Angeles County are the stuff of nightmares.
The heartbreaking stories of families struggling to escape the inferno of their neighborhoods, and losing a child or a grandparent in the attempt, are worse. Smoke from the fires, visible from space, is obscuring the skies in faraway places like Washington, D.C. — not to mention Minnesota.
Meanwhile, an iceberg the size of Manhattan has broken off from an ice shelf in Canada. Repeated hurricanes are pummeling the Gulf Coast. Torrential thunderstorms and hundred-year floods have become regular events in the Midwest, and anyone who lived through Iowa’s recent derecho knows that no place is truly safe from the ravages of nature.
Scientists typically hesitate to ascribe a single weather event to climate change, but the events are piling up, and have been doing so for some time. As a Minnesota poet observed in another context, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.