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California Governor Jerry Brown seized the opportunity last month to blame Climate Change for the “new normal” of rampant wildfires. With neighborhoods burning down and the fire inching closer to homes, Government and Science declared that a bogeyman of myopic mass humanity was at fault.
The Governor’s reaction is noteworthy for its bizarrely cultish tone. In fact, we know with certainty the specific individuals responsible for many of these horrible fires:
- The Skirball Fire that threatened Bel-Air and the Getty Museum a few weeks ago was ignited by an illegal cooking fire at a homeless encampment.
- The Cedar Fire of 2003 (what had been the largest wildfire in California history before this year’s Thomas Fire) was caused by a hunter lost in the woods who used a fire to try to signal rescuers.
- In 2009, a man illegally using a weed whacker around hot, dry brush started the Jesusita Fire, which destroyed almost 100 homes.
Even NPR reports that humans cause 84 percent of wildfires. Yet elected officials do not use the bully pulpit (let alone legislation) to try to curb such persistent recklessness if not intentional arson. It makes us queasy, it seems, to admit that an individual could be responsible for such damage.
With Climate Change instead as the popular scapegoat, elected officials avoid pressing questions, such as the prudence of their tactical response, whether they invest inadequate resources to prevent and fight wildfires, or whether their forest management policies are reasonable.
California has a history of chaotic, even incompetent, wildfire responses, as in the 2003 Cedar Fire (which prompted a state investigation after destroying over 2,200 homes). The chairman of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s investigation of that fire concluded that “many lessons from similar past tragedies have gone unlearned…. Vegetation and fuel management, habitat preservation and environmental protection have often conflicted with sound fire safe planning….”
Fire experts have long encouraged “prescribed burning” to minimize vegetation growth and, in the long run, reduce smoke pollution otherwise caused by out-of-control wildfires. Not surprisingly, however, environmental policies treat prescribed burn smoke as an “avoidable nuisance” subject to heavy regulation. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and other regulations impose onerous limits on our ability to prevent massive wildfires.
Even as we celebrate our valiant firemen, it is also legitimate to question whether our firefighting resources are effectively coordinated and whether triage decisions are made appropriately. Over the last month, a few friends sheepishly whispered in private, wondering why insufficient air resources were deployed over some fires while others received repeated rounds of tankers. They asked why the Skirball Fire (adjacent to swanky Bel-Air) somehow was quelled immediately in difficult terrain while the Thomas Fire (begun in rustic Ojai) became unstoppable in all directions. With Climate Change as the predetermined culprit, the media and an intimidated public pursue none of these questions.
California’s 2003-04 wildfire commission found that “[u]nless and until public policymakers at all levels of government muster the political will to put the protection of life and property ahead of competing political agendas, these tragedies are certain to repeat.” Unfortunately, in the interim, a new political agenda — Climate Change, the mother of all political agendas — has hijacked any chance at progress. The “new normal” in our California communities is the utterly inane sentiment that we can barely do anything to prevent cities from being destroyed by wildfires unless President Trump re-enters the Paris Agreement.
At this point, we may ask whether modern politics is really “modern.” What had been a system of administration designed to marshal man’s rational thinking to provide security for life and property is now dominated by doctrinal intimidation and groupthink. Even if we assume (and I do not) that manmade actions gradually increase average temperatures, decrease relative humidities, cause drought, and promote Santa Ana wind events, we ought to have the sense to distinguish it from many other more immediately treatable causes.
Governor Brown and his ilk have become so primitive that they might as well be proposing a state policy of rain dances. Dazzled by our technologies and mystified by persistent catastrophes, we appear to be exhausted. Self-government is feckless and tired, as it bounces between views that humanity is the source of all good and the source of all evil. It is possible that — just maybe! — welcoming Christianity back into society could return us to an era of rational government, in which man’s theories are tempered by a knowledge that while we cannot control everything, we can control some things.