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Cornwall Alliance / October 6, 2020

What Really Caused California’s Devastating Wildfires?

I was raised in the Midwest region of the United States, but I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Southeast. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was given the opportunity to move to Los Angeles, California, a place I had only seen on television.

By Jennifer Bays Toombs

I was raised in the Midwest region of the United States, but I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Southeast. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was given the opportunity to move to Los Angeles, California, a place I had only seen on television.

It’s been two and a half years since that move, and that time has been filled with many more surprises. The biggest shock to me was my immediate and intense love for California.

There’s not enough time or space for our purposes here to describe fully what this state means to me, but a short list would include the beautiful, sunny, temperate days, nearly year round; the majesty and energy of the Pacific Ocean; the presence of the towering, watchful, snow-capped mountains that feel like ever-present friends; and the cultural diversity that provides constant opportunity for new experiences and growth.

During my time here, I have experienced three earthquakes and two very intense fire seasons, so you can imagine how often I am asked if it’s “worth it” to live here. My answer is yes, unequivocally, but like any intense love for anything in our lives, there will be pain, and in this case the pain is a deep burden for the stewardship of the state that is the fifth-largest economy in the world and feeds a significant percentage of the entire United States.

Two years ago, Paradise literally went up in smoke. Paradise is a town in northern California that burned, nearly entirely, in a very short time. At least 85 people died in that fire in what must have been the most horrific of deaths.

The cause of the fire was a spark from an electric company power line. As I sat writing this, the entire West Coast was besieged by fire. The governor of Oregon had told her state to expect enormous loss of life and property. San Francisco resembled Mars more than Earth, with a deep-red hue for days, and the sun was a distant memory in Los Angeles while the sky rained ash.

I listened and watched the news in horror as images of all of the above streamed for weeks. I also watched the governors of these states speak repeatedly about this dire situation. They were united on the cause of these fires: climate change. And they should bear the brunt of their belief.

Near the height of the firestorms, California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke from within a smoky forest and indignantly stated that we had been warned about the climate crisis for “50 years,"  while Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee declared the current fires should not be called wildfires but "Climate Fires.”

I can’t speak to the situations in Oregon and Washington, but in California, Governor Newsom and state leaders — along with past leadership — proved their commitment by enacting the most stringent legislation in the country dedicated to fending off climate change. And so, I ask one simple question: Where was the preparation to prevent the predictable result of this much-anticipated situation?

California has always had a dry season. California has always burned. California has always experienced the Santa Ana winds every year at the same time.

This is not news to our elected officials or the indigenous peoples who have lived here for centuries. The Karuk tribe’s solution was and is to perform “prescribed burns,” fires intentionally lit at opportune times to reduce built-up fuel and thus avoid future calamity. Researchers at Stanford University agree, stating that 20% of the state could benefit from such planned burns. Yet, this preemptive measure is significantly underused, even though our officials claim the threat is greater than ever, and growing. Why?

Many fires in California begin due to the egregious negligence of both the power company and the regulatory agency tasked with inspecting powerlines. The Pacific Power and Gas Co. infrastructure is so dilapidated that some transmission lines are over 100 years old, while the California Public Utilities Commission has failed to inspect some sections for years. The situation is so bad that the power company filed bankruptcy after the Paradise debacle and was permitted to carry on as usual afterward, along with rolling blackouts, when the ever-predictable winds blow. And this is permitted to continue in spite of the claims of increased threat by our officials. Why?

The combination of the above — increased fuel, gross negligence, and yearly high winds — would only ever have one result, on the best of days, in the best of seasons, and that’s before we consider the multiple incidences of arson that are currently documented.

So, what do I hear when our elected officials claim climate change as the cause of fires? I hear shameless excuse-making. I hear dereliction of duty. I hear unforgivable incompetence.

While the governor and state leaders dream and pontificate about what might be in some distant, imaginary future, California burns — now. Homes, businesses, and, most importantly, lives are lost — now.


Jennifer Bays Toombs lives near Los Angeles, California.

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