President Biden made his first visit as West Coast President on Monday, but his visit to California to investigate bushfire damage came weeks later to draw attention to the enormous human and financial costs of climate change. This marks his second journey.
Biden is expected to visit the California Emergency Services office, where he will receive a briefing on the Caldor fire and then fly over the Marine One fire, followed by a public welcome.
Biden traveled to New York and New Jersey earlier this month to investigate the damage caused by Hurricane Ida. But the California bushfire crisis is worse in several ways: With the state battling increasingly intense and deadly fires almost every year, there is no quick or easy way to reduce the damage. .
Over the past decade, the number of fires in California has remained constant each year, ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 per year. What has changed is their benchmark.
In 2018, the largest recorded fire in the state for which data is available never reached 300,000 hectares, according to the state. About 460,000 hectares burned in 2018, and last year the fires exceeded 1 million hectares in August, making it the largest fire in the country’s history.
The Dixie fire, which has burned more than 960,000 acres and covered only two-thirds, is likely to break that record. “The fire situation in California is undetected any worse than it was ten years ago,” said Michael Vara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University.
As the fire increases, so does the damage it does. In 2017, California wildfires damaged or destroyed more than 10,000 buildings – more than the last five years combined. The following year that number doubled to about 25,000.
The number of human health and safety is also increasing. According to the state, fewer than 20 people died in wildfires between 2012 and 2016. 47 people died in 2017; Another 100 people died in 2018 and 33 people died in 2020.
But the number of people is much higher than these figures suggest. Studies show that smoke from wildfires is more toxic than other types of pollution and that the health problems for children are particularly bad. The smoke also appears to be increasing the number of COVID-19-related deaths.
The California bushfire crisis often turns into a political battle. Last summer, then-President Donald J. Trump blamed California for the fire problem and initially refused federal disaster relief.
“You have to clean up your land, you have to clean up your forests,” Trump said in his comments at the time, highlighting only one aspect of the complex problem. “There have been years of broken leaves and trees and they are very flammable.”
Trump also rejected the link between wildfires and global warming. When administration officials told him not to ignore the science of climate change, which shows that higher temperatures and drought are making the fires worse, Trump was wrong by saying, “I don’t think science really knows.”
While Trump made the mistake of dismissing the role of climate change in accelerating the fires, he is right that more aggressive forest management is key to fighting these fires, experts say. But most of that work has to come from the federal government, which owns roughly half of the land in California, said Dr. Vara.
Biden’s first budget proposal earlier this year did not ask Congress enough to reduce the amount of combustible vegetation in the country’s forests, said Dr. Biden. Vara. But the Infrastructure Act now before Congress will increase these funds significantly.
“The problem of forest fires cannot be solved independently of forest management,” said Dr. Vara.