Whistling Past the Wildfires

Anti-government extremists of the American Right continue to insist that concern about global warming is some sort of “statist” plot as they block policies to address the worsening crisis and slash funds needed to respond to its effects like deadly wildfires, as Michael Winship explains.

By Michael Winship

In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, one of the most touching responses in my neighborhood, not far Ground Zero, was the overwhelming support of police and fire departments from around the country.

Across the street from my apartment, at the 6th Precinct headquarters from which two officers had rushed to the scene and died, every day a different police contingent from a different town in America guarded our street. And a couple of blocks away, at the Squad 18 firehouse, which lost seven men on September 11, fellow firefighters from all over came to stand vigil and pay their respects. Solidarity.

All this came back to me when the memorial was held a couple of weeks ago for the 19 firemen who died battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona. The tragedy was the worst to befall firefighters since the World Trade Center came down, and the most deadly in 80 years for the men and women who dedicate themselves to taming blazes in the wilderness.

Thousands jammed into an arena in Prescott Valley, Arizona, with the overflow of the crowd in an adjoining parking lot, standing, listening and mourning under the desert sun. There were firefighters there from Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, but also from Sacramento, Los Angeles and New York.

Nine days before, the crew members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been fatally overtaken by flames and smoke. When the winds picked up and the fire changed direction, surging four miles in 20 minutes, they were trapped, surrounded in a box canyon, trying to save themselves under emergency fire shelters that melted from the heat.

Anyone who has ever been in the middle of a serious fire knows how terrifying they are and unpredictable, even for those like the hotshots, with their courage, skills and conditioning. Much of what gets them through is their camaraderie and the knowledge that what they do saves lives and property.

The least we can do is stand in solidarity behind them, but on both a micro and macro level, our stalwart U.S. Congress, aided and abetted by government bureaucracy, is cutting Western firefighters’ lifeline much as it did when members of the House initially balked at aid for sick and dying 9/11 first responders. This, despite their publicly professed pride in the men and women who rush into danger when the rest of us rush out to safety.

“In May, Obama administration officials warned that sequester cuts would inhibit the nation’s ability to effectively fight wildfires in the West,” Derek Pugh wrote in the progressive Campaign for America’s Future blog on July 1. “Budget cuts are putting the lives of our firefighters and those who live in and near forests at an unacceptably high risk.

“The automatic spending cuts have forced the U.S. Forest Service to shed 500 firefighters, between 50 and 70 fire trucks and two aircrafts in this year’s budget. The sequester will leave agencies $115 million short of normal firefighting capacity, meaning that 200,000 fewer acres will be treated to prevent fires.”

Fighting actual fires has meant shifting money from fire prevention, which in a Catch-22-like situation may actually create more and worse fires in the future. And, according to the Climate Desk at Mother Jones magazine, “The agency’s next proposed budget cuts preventative spending by a further 24 percent.

“It’s all part of what fire ecologists, environmentalists, and firefighters interviewed by Climate Desk describe as an increasingly distorted federal budget that has apparently forgotten the old adage about an ounce of prevention: It pours billions ($2 billion in 2012) into fighting fires but skimps on cheap, proven methods for stopping megafires before they start.”

This worry was echoed by four Western senators in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget and other cabinet departments written, coincidentally, on the very day the fatal Yarnell Hill fire began: “This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs.”

And a May report from Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute  “found that the bulk of the costs from megafires are borne not by the federal government but by local governments and the federal budgeting process ignores those bills when weighing whether prevention saves money.”

As for the macro, the simple fact that we refuse to take legislative action to curb climate change is part of the reason fires will continue to worsen.

“Big wildfires thrive in dry air, low humidity, and high winds,” James West reports in Mother Jones. “Climate change is going to make those conditions more frequent over the next century. We know because it’s already happening: A University of Arizona report from 2006 found that large forest fires have occurred more often in the western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier, and summers got hotter, leaving more and drier fuels for fires to devour.

“Thomas Tidwell, the head of the United States Forest Service, told a Senate committee on energy and natural resources recently that the fire season now lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did four decades ago. Fires now, he said, burn the same amount of land faster.”

It’s part of that “new normal” you keep hearing about drought, heat, earlier growing seasons, new insect infestations, global air and water currents, like the Gulf jet stream, shifting. And fewer trees mean less carbon dioxide being absorbed by them, more CO2 given off when the remaining ones burn, which adds to the warming and more fires you get the picture.

“The West is burning,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently told reporters. “We have climate change. You can’t deny it.”

And if you don’t believe him, listen to Dr. Michael Medler, a scientist at Western Washington University who used to be a wildland firefighter himself. “On the firelines, it is clear that global warming is changing fire behavior, creating longer fire seasons, and causing more frequent, large-scale, high severity wildfires,” he told a House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “Many firefighters have commented that they are facing more extreme fire behavior than they have witnessed in their lifetimes.”

The good news is that Dr. Medler says some of his colleagues speculate there’s a ten-year “window of opportunity to have some control over fire behavior with desirable effects”

The bad news is he said that nearly six years ago. The Granite Mountain Hotshots have just finished burying their dead.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the public policy and advocacy group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, “Moyers & Company.” For more information or to comment, please go to www.billmoyers.com.


5 comments for “Whistling Past the Wildfires

  1. Dan Alter
    August 5, 2013 at 05:12

    Get your facts straight. Global warming is first not happening. check global temps SINCE 1997 and the several times we have been warmer with both lower and higher CO2 levels.

    Second it is basic atmospheric physics that directly shows it is impossible for further rises in CO2 levels to cause global warming.

    Why CO2 levels above 400 ppm can NOt cause global warming.

  2. bobzz
    August 1, 2013 at 14:19

    As the article is related to the sequester, I shall ask: did that sequester money go to Wall Street? I do not know, but the stock market took a big jump lately, so I wonder. They may have applied it to the debt, but I doubt that. If anyone knows, let me know.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    July 31, 2013 at 15:02

    Give it up, guys. Global warming will NEVER be addressed until it’s already a catastrophe. When it is finally addressed, it will not be through democratic, bipartisan efforts achieved by laying out the facts and confronting reality. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was illegal. In 1957, nine African American students enrolled in the Little Rock high school. The governor, a typical example of modern right wing-nut intellectual prowess, Orval Faubus, logically concluded that the best way to prevent that was to send in the Arkansas National Guard. Somehow, despite his aforementioned intellectual prowess, the “National” part of National Guard and the “Supreme” part of Supreme Court failed to register in his latticework of “higher order” abstractions. President Eisenhower tweaked his ability to comprehend the difference between rational and delusional abstractions by sending in the 101st Airborne Division. That got his attention.

    Delusional abstractions include things like “clean coal”, “arming the good rebels”, “right to work laws”, “tax cuts for job creators”, “corporate personhood”, “humanitarian (military) intervention”, “trickle-down economics”, “small government”, “free trade”, “self-regulation”, “privatization”, “supply side economics” and a host of others. As you get to know some of these folks better, they may begin to share some of their more cherished political abstractions, like teaching “creation theory” as part of science education, and how America was founded as a “Christian” nation, not a democracy. Soon, they begin to asked probing questions, like- “Are you saved too?” They may engage you in deep philosophical propositions, like…”If both the pilot and the co-pilot on an airliner are Christians and they get raptured, who would fly the plane?” These are complex higher order abstractions. But they are abstractions about abstract concepts that do not reflect anything in the empirical world. Global warming is occurring in the empirical, not the fantasy world.

    The politicians that belittle rational discussion about global warming are not just the ones getting massive campaign contributions from oil companies. They are also the ones that believe in a Divine Plan and Biblical Infallibility. All of their abstractions are linear concepts, like y = x. In other words, categorization and dogmatism. They live in a world where “welfare is bad”, “wealth is achievement”, “corporations are people”, “poor are lazy”, “tax is theft”, and science is “just a theory”.

    These are people who cannot digest exponential abstractions. The idea that an asymptote can approach an infinitely large number without a significant increase in time or distance or velocity or temperature is something that does not fit their world view. Psychologists call this normalcy bias, the failure to conceptualize an outcome because it never happened before. The problem is, these are the people flying our plane. If only they could get themselves raptured before it’s too late…but that would be wishful thinking, an “optimism” bias. Fasten your seat belts, because these people are nuts. You’re asking them to conceptualize y = e to the power x, and they think they can do that by taking off their shoes and socks. This problem won’t get solved in a country that keeps electing rapture-mongering Christian right wing-nuts…unless some President uses the Eisenhower approach. Oh, the Rapture! But, my guess is, catastrophic depopulation will occur first. In the meantime, Firefighters will be remembered in our prayers, God’s Will explains everything, and the Divine Plan will not be modified.

    • Hillary
      August 1, 2013 at 17:42

      Remember nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug,
      Who will save us from these fanatics.
      BTW President Eisenhower may not be the hero you seem to think-
      He approved the overthrow of Mosaddegh, and the Bay of Pigs operation was planned during his administration.


  4. Jim-Jams
    July 31, 2013 at 10:58

    I wonder how long it’s going to be before residents of the Western States that have reduced or do not wish to fund firefighting capabilities properly
    connect it with the fact that it puts their homes & lives in jeopardy ?

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