Greg Camp on the California wildfires and the incompetent and flippant President Trump.

First published in November 2018.

In response to the wildfires in California, Donald Trump informed the world that Finland avoids the ravages of forest fires because the Finns “spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.” Translating his stream of unconscientiousness into English is always a challenge, and what he may have heard when the Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, spoke with him in Paris recently is anyone’s guess. Finland does have a forest management plan, but that country is also much wetter than California, and there is the small matter of being at much higher latitudes, giving the Finns the benefit — in terms of forest fires — of lower temperatures.

Perhaps Trump heard something from an adviser about how allowing small fires consumes the available fuel on the forest floor, thereby preventing conflagrations and mixed that with the efforts of the Finnish leader to offer encouragement, but that may be giving him more credit than he deserves. And any points that he earned are erased when we consider the implications of his comments.

Malibu, California / The White House

“Raking and cleaning and doing things” sounds at first pass like something simply inane. But consider the demographics of the two regions, Finland and California. Trump has expressed his preference for Nordic peoples, suggesting that he would welcome Norwegians over people from shithole countries,” and so when he characterizes the Finns as staying busy keeping their land clean, it is difficult not to conclude that he means to disparage the Latino residents of the American state that was stolen from Mexican territory.

This would be merely yet another example of Trump’s dim view of the world if it were not for the need, immediate and long term, for government action.

The death total from the fires is climbing, and given the number of the missing, the butcher’s bill may be in the hundreds. Many more have been displaced, with no knowing when they will be able to return. This disaster has the potential to be included in the same category as Hurricane Katrina.

It is all too easy to blame the victims, to say that they chose to live in the area, chose a state government whose policies contributed to the fires — especially if we do not care about the facts — or chose to vote for a candidate other than Trump. But the reality is that as populations increase globally, the land available for housing shrinks, and lots of people will live in regions prone to any of a number of disasters. Telling them to pick up and move is a glib answer that will satisfy until those migrants come to the neighborhoods where the smug live.

The cost of fires in 2017 in California wine country may top $2.5 billion, and this year’s damages look to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars already. The burden that disasters like this impose are an example of where government has a role in maintaining the general welfare of the nation. To leave the expense to insurance companies or to the property owners would mean economic ruin for many. The right wing will say that this is the personal responsibility of the people in the region, claiming that they should have thought about living in a area at risk for wildfires, but where in America are we to find the a zone of prudence in which no catastrophe can happen?

Flyover of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria September 23, 2017 / Wilimedia.

Hurricanes threaten the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. Tornadoes are a constant of the midwest in the summers. Earthquakes and fires endanger the west, and all of our states along the shores could be hit by tsunamis. And if the supervolcano under Yellowstone erupts, a lot of the country will be in trouble — along with the rest of the world, given the climatic effects. There is nowhere safe from nature, and the economic burden is beyond what ordinary people can prepare for.

Recovery from disaster is one job of government, and so is addressing the cause. That is certainly not a lack of raking, nor is it the fault of “environmental radicals,” despite what Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Breitbart. An immediate cause may have been power lines of Pacific Gas & Electric. The idea of burying power lines could be a part of the solution, depending on whether that would be possible in a geologically unstable region, but again, the costs are steep.

But regardless of whatever happened to be the particular spark, and contrary to what the Trump administration wants to admit, one specific consequence of human activity — climate change — is creating the conditions that make wildfires more likely. Increases in temperatures dry the land, weakening trees and allowing insects a longer season of operation and expanded ranges, and making stopping the fires more difficult.

This is the real problem of Trump’s comment. We do not have the luxury of an incompetent and flippant president, nor can we afford heads of government agencies who are more concerned about enriching their friends than doing their jobs. It is up to each one of us to demand that our elected representatives acknowledge the causes of disasters, accept our collective responsibility to help each other survive and recover from them, and take the steps necessary to reverse the damage that we are doing to the global environment.🔷

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[This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog! and re-published in PMP Magazine on 25 November 2018. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/NASA/JPL-Caltech - The Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, created these Damage Proxy Maps (DPMs) depicting areas in California likely damaged by the Woolsey and Camp Fires. | November 2018. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)