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“These Are Climate Fires”: Oregon Firefighter Ecologist Says Devastating Blazes Are a Wake-Up Call
by Democracy Now!
Thursday Sep 17th, 2020 6:04 PM
President Trump has said little about the wildfires raging in California, Oregon and Washington for three weeks, other than to suggest poor forest management was primarily to blame. But the states’ governors are pushing back and directly linking the fires to the climate crisis. “These are climate fires,” says Timothy Ingalsbee, an Oregon-based wildland fire ecologist and former wildland firefighter who now directs Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “Though some scientists hesitate to attribute a single event to climate change, these are exactly the conditions predicted by climatologists.”
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As California, Oregon and Washington face unprecedented fires, President Trump is refusing to link the devastation to the climate crisis. After ignoring the fires for a week, Trump is traveling to California today. Over the weekend, he blamed the fires on poor forest management.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But, you know, it is about forest management. Please remember the words, very simple: forest management. Please remember. It’s about forest management.

AMY GOODMAN: California Governor Newsom rejected Trump’s focus on forest management practices.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: I’m a little bit exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue. This is a climate damn emergency. … And I’m not going to suggest for a second that the forest management practices in the state of California over a century-plus have been ideal, but that’s one point, but it’s not the point.

AMY GOODMAN: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also pushed back on Trump’s characterization of the wildfires as a forest management issue. Speaking on CNN, Garcetti said the president was reluctant to help California, Oregon and Washington because they have Democratic governors.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: This is climate change. And this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand. While we have Democratic and Republican mayors across the country stepping up to do their part, this is an administration, a president, who wants to withdraw from the Paris climate accords later this year — the only country in the world to do so. Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn’t real. And it seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation. We need real action.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington state, where firefighters are tackling 15 large fires, Governor Jay Inslee also emphasized the climate crisis is most responsible for the wildfires.

GOV. JAY INSLEE: These are not just wildfires. They are climate fires. And we cannot and we will not surrender our state and expose people to have their homes burned down and their lives lost because of climate fires.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Oregon, six of the military helicopters operated by the state’s National Guard, that could have been used to help fight the wildfires, are not available because they were sent to Afghanistan earlier this year. This is Oregon Governor Kate Brown speaking Friday.

GOV. KATE BROWN: Well over a million acres of land has burned, which is over 1,500 square miles. Right now our air quality ranks the worst in the world due to these fires. … There is no question that the changing climate is exacerbating what we see on the ground. We had, as we mentioned earlier, unprecedented, a weather event with winds and temperatures. In addition, we added a ground that has had a 30-year drought. So, it made for extremely challenging circumstances and has certainly exacerbated the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Eugene, Oregon, where we’re joined by Timothy Ingalsbee. He is a wildland fire ecologist, former wildland firefighter, n ow director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, known as FUSEE.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tim. First, describe the scene in Oregon.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Well, the situation changes day by day, sometimes even by the hour. But this past week, we’ve had over two dozen very large fires burning on the west side of the Cascades. These have been explosive rates of growth, tens of thousands of acres, several miles per day.

And it is natural for Oregon to have big fires high in the mountains. What’s very freakish about these is to have these fires coming down from the mountains, barreling down our valleys, marching right up to the doorsteps of major metropolitan areas like Portland and Eugene. So, it’s even beyond those people within the reach of flames; the whole region is under a pall of smoke. It’s literally blotting out the sun, from British Columbia to Baja.

As you noted, we had some of the world’s worst air quality. And interestingly, this dense pall of smoke has largely grounded the fleet of helicopters and air tankers that would normally be working on these wildfires.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump refuses, even being in Reno, Nevada, to make the connection to the climate crisis. He said this is linked to two words: “forest management.” Talk about the link to the climate crisis and what we’re seeing throughout the West. And these fires are going way beyond. I mean, they’re in Montana, they’re in Colorado, as well as Oregon, Washington and California, that they’re devastating.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Well, these are climate fires. And they’re the product of extreme heat waves and prolonged droughts and then very low humidities. What’s really rare about this, this event here in Oregon, is there was a regionwide east wind event. The winds came screaming from the deserts on the east side of the mountains up over, barreled down these valleys and just propelled these flames. And though some scientists hesitate to attribute a single event to climate change, these are exactly the conditions predicted by climatologists. And where once they were rare — I mean, they’re not entirely unprecedented in our prehistoric past — they will become much more frequent in the days ahead. So, just the combination of heat and dryness and winds and lightning storms are making these fires explosive.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact that six helicopters that are supposed to be fighting Oregon’s — that could be used to fight the wildfires are in Oregon — are in Afghanistan?

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Yeah. Well, I guess we’re fighting one war or the other all across the planet. But in addition to that, there’s been several firefighters and engines and other crews from Oregon that have been in California or Colorado for weeks. So, I mean, it’s really a West-wide phenomenon, another indication of climate change.

Trump isn’t entirely wrong about forest management playing a role, because in addition to these fires being propelled by these hot, dry winds, they’re also raging through the industrial tree farms that were clear-cut in the 1970s and '80s, covered over with densely stocked young trees. And where, you know, for an old-growth forest it takes a very rare, very high-intensity fire to kill those trees, it doesn't take much for these tree farms to just be incinerated. And what will be seen here in the Oregon landscape is kind of time going in reverse, the green veneer of tree farms that are being stripped off, and we’ll just see these proverbial moonscapes of barren, ash-covered slopes as these tree farms are incinerated. That’s what’s burning in the Holiday Farm market — Holiday Farm Fire outside my town.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about your experience as a firefighter, and what you think needs to happen right now? Now, we had heard that something like 10% of the population of Oregon was under evacuation orders, but that was taken back. What is happening?

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Well, again, it’s very chaotic. When these fires erupted, in some cases, you know, the wind event blew down power lines in the dark of night right on the edge of towns, and so people had almost no warning, and flames lapping at their walls, and they had to flee for their lives. The first crews to arrive there were not even able to engage the fire. They had to help people evacuate. So, it wasn’t for a couple days that firefighters were actually able to fight the fire. They were being more like traffic control cops. So, we were really short-handed.

A very important point, though, is, no amount of firefighters, engines, air tankers, or whatever, will be able to handle phenomena like this. This is a climate-driven wildfire. Nature is far more powerful than us. And so, unless and until we get a handle on our fossil fuel emissions, there’s nothing we can do that will really prevent these kinds of events from happening. And once happening, very little that we can do, other than just get out of the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Ingalsbee, if you can talk about your daughter’s lawsuit? Last year, Democracy Now! spoke to Kelsey, Kelsey Juliana, who was the lead plaintiff in the landmark youth climate lawsuit against the U.S. government. I started by asking her about the lawsuit.

KELSEY JULIANA: This lawsuit is a constitutional climate change case against the U.S. federal government, filed by 21 courageous young individuals in 2015. At the time, the youngest was 8, and the oldest, myself, was 19. This case looks at the actions of the federal government for the past several decades of helping to perpetuate the climate crisis by continuing to fund the fossil fuel economy, endangering the lives of all citizens, but especially disproportionately harming the lives of young citizens and future generations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kelsey Juliana, Tim, your daughter. Explain this lawsuit and what’s happened to it.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Well, I’m very proud of my daughter and her peers, who are, you know, taking on the federal government. An important point for people to understand is it’s not the inaction of the federal government that is part of the climate crisis; it’s their deliberate actions, pushing more fossil fuel extraction and burning, you know, promoting the alteration of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. And so, this is a constitutional-based case, that this is causing — the government is causing my daughter’s generation and all future generations, of all species, for that matter, significant harm. And so, it’s been tied up in court for years. My daughter was a young girl when she started this case. Who knows when it will be resolved? She may be a middle-aged woman.

AMY GOODMAN: Started under Obama, is that right? Now moved on to Trump.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: That’s right, because this has been, you know, both parties. All administrations, for decades, have knowingly been putting the planet in peril by promoting the fossil fuel civilization, you might say. So, I’m hopeful that the case will be resolved in our favor. But in the meantime, these are big, big, huge problems, dealing with climate change, dealing with rural sprawl. I mean, that’s what’s making this a disaster. So many people are in the pathway of these fires. And then the legacy of clearcut logging, livestock grazing, you know, mining, other things that have really damaged the ecosystems, made them less resilient to climate change. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Timothy Ingalsbee, if you could talk about wealthy people hiring — or, taking out Cadillac insurance, and what this means, hiring private firefighters?

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Right. This is — wealthy people can purchase private firefighters to protect their properties in case of fire. And that goes back to the early days of even municipal fire departments, where, you know, you’d have to buy protection, and they would skip over homes that weren’t part of the service, and protect those that were. But what that portends is a further decline in the public agencies and the ability of agency crews to protect all of us, in favor of just those who are wealthy enough to buy their own protection.

And just like the pandemic, though, wildfire makes no distinctions between rich and poor. And, you know, as now in Oregon, we’ve suddenly realized we’re all in the fire zone, even those of us in the middle of the city. It just takes one home to ignite, and then we have house-to-house ignitions, like a domino effect. And so, we’re all in this together, really.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, California Governor Newsom just signed a law that will allow some prisoners, who are firefighters, who haven’t been able to become firefighters once they get out of jail, though they’re among the most experienced, that they will have their records expunged, making it easier for them to become professional firefighters when they’re released, and apply for jobs. Newsom tweeted Friday, quote, “CA’s inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform,” unquote, along with a picture of him signing the law in a scorched forest. A lot of these private firefighters — some of them are those former prisoners who couldn’t get into the public firefighting forces.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: Yeah, yeah. You know, in California, the inmate firefighters have a reputation to be some of the bravest, most hard-working, fearless firefighters. This is — it’s about time. It’s a matter of justice, that once they pay their sentence, they should be members of society with job opportunities.

But we have to kind of get beyond the monopolization of fire management by government agencies. And really, there’s a huge role that communities and citizens should play as partners with government agencies in preparing their homes for fire, because we know we can’t prevent all these fires. Large fires are natural and inevitable, but urban fire disasters are entirely avoidable.

AMY GOODMAN: Timothy Ingalsbee, we want to thank you so much for being with us, wildland fire ecologist, former wildland firefighter himself, now director of FUSEE. That’s Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.

When we come back, we go to Reverend William Barber in North Carolina to talk about a new voting campaign. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by Toots and the Maytals. He [Toots Hibbert] died on September 11th in Jamaica.

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