Fired Up

When the fires were raging around Paradise, California, many of us had an extra measure of compassion for the people who lost their lives or saw their homes destroyed. It was only two years ago, almost to the day, that Towns County was squeezed between two large fires, and parts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, were destroyed.

President Trump made several comments about the California fires and claimed that the situation was made worse by poor forest management. He downplayed the role of climate change in the tragedy.

The President is prone to shoot from the hip sometimes, with comments that are blunt and confrontational. I can’t decide whether I believe that he simply doesn’t care what people think about his comments, or that he intentionally goads the media into predictable responses.

Predictably, the media erupted in outrage. How dare he attempt to barbecue the sacred cow of global warming, one of the ideological litmus tests of progressive thought!  Celebrities, politicians and pundits were soon generating the headlines we’ve come to expect: Trump “slammed,” “attacked,” “destroyed” and “called out.”

Such headlines are commonplace, now that politics and news have merged with professional wrestling. But there was one celebrity comment that, I’m sorry to say, got under my skin. A famous musician who lives in California, criticized the president for “defying science,”  and after “blasting” the president and anyone who would dare to question the popular narrative of anthropogenic climate change, the moralizing musician urged us to “come together as a people to take climate change on.”

We live in interesting times when a call to unity begins with an insult, but words do not mean what they used to mean.

Let me pause here to say that I reject outright the climate change litmus test for correct thinking, and it doesn’t matter whether that test is administered from the left or right side of the kindergarten. There is, in my view, sufficient data and consensus to demonstrate that the climate is indeed changing. The degree to which humans have precipitated this change and the contribution made by planetary movements, Lorenz energy cycles and solar cycles is still being discovered.

At this point in our history, when humans have populated so many of the areas of the planet that are the most sensitive to change, it’s far more important to decide how we’re going to prepare for change than it is to argue about who or what is responsible.

With fires still smoldering, hundreds of homes destroyed and people missing, a poor choice was made by those who used the tragedy to prosecute a political ideology. That, too, is becoming commonplace.

For the record, in this particular instance, the president, bluntness notwithstanding, was more correct than the musician. The tragedy in California would have been significantly mitigated by better forestry practices. Veteran foresters have warned for decades that  northern California forests needed thinning. Some burned areas were supporting 3-5 times more trees per acre than is considered optimum for a healthy forest in that region.

Controlled burns in California have been delayed or canceled because of lawsuits. Naturally occurring fires have been aggressively fought (sometimes at great sacrifice) before they could do what fire does to manage healthy forest lands. Landowners have been deterred from managing their own properties by restrictive regulations.

These were unintended consequences of laws and regulations that grew out of a sincere, even zealous desire to protect the environment, but that desire does not erase the consequences. Some of the good folks who champion the environment fail to understand that when you add humans to the mix, when you put people on top of mountains, along coastlines, into areas prone to drought or flooding, you change the management formula. Fire has managed forests for millions of years. When you try to prevent fire from doing that job, you are only delaying the inevitable and leveraging its effects.

Of course climate change has made the situation worse, but the musician’s explanation also “defies science,” specifically the science of forestry and long ignored recommendations on how to manage land that has been prone to drought for millennia. The 20th century was exceptionally wet for northern California. 1000 years ago that area suffered two extreme dry spells, one which lasted 240 years and another 140 years. So even though climate change is extraordinary for ephemeral humans, for California, fire has always and will always happen. Even Governor Brown recommended a change in California’s forestry practices – in August – before the fires started.

Longtime readers of this column will appreciate this irony:  On 23 November, The White House released a government sponsored report on climate change which agreed with the anthropocentric (human caused) view and predicted painful consequences for the future. Trump was immediately accused of trying to “bury” the report by releasing it on Black Friday….

We haven’t wasted a lot of energy in Towns County arguing about who is responsible for the weather. In the mountains, we have long known that weather always changes. When the smoke and fires of 2016 quickly erased the memory of the contrived drama of the elections, we were united in our efforts to support our neighbors and the brave people risking their lives on the fire lines. Since then, our Firewise communities have continued to help people learn to work with their neighbors to reduce the risk of wildfire.

It has long been said that everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. That’s not exactly true. So instead of ruining our digestion with politics or worrying about what’s happening on the national stage, we have an opportunity to DO something about climate change, no matter what our beliefs may be. Contact Frank Riley here at the Towns County Herald, call the Commissioner’s office or talk with a volunteer firefighter. Find out about the Firewise community near you, or learn how to start one in your neighborhood.




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