Terry H. Schwadron
How has it possible for Donald Trump to remain silent in the face of the terror that wildfires are spreading across the West, forcing evacuation of a half-million people from their homes in Oregon, seeing the devastation of the largest fires in California ever, turning daytime skies over the Bay Area deep orange with smoke?
Yes, there finally was one tweet this weekend, to thank bravery of firefighters, and a promised photo op trip for Monday — following a political rally in Nevada. But, as many news outlets, state officials and others have complained, there was no offer of calm rather than panic — his promoted goal in ignoring the dangers of coronavirus — not to bring in federal help.
Thankfully, Trump has quietly started the machinery that will bring financial resources to bear, but seemingly only after Oregon warned of evacuation for 10% of its population, and Trump had chided California once again for failing to rake up forest leaves as if that were possible or that it actual could prevents wildfires on this scale.
The burned acreage in at least 42 large fired is larger than some states, and the fires are nowhere near under control, even with 28,000 firefighters at work. Friends in California talk of choking smoke, and my own family in Lake Tahoe is monitoring how wind direction could enflame a mountainous blaze a half-hour’s drive over the peaks to the west.
But Donald Trump, so quick to call out street violence along a block or two of Kenosha, WI, or to fly to the Gulf Coast in the day after a hurricane, has watched three weeks’ worth of crazed wildfires, fueled by years of drought, and basically has said nothing.
California and Oregon voted Democratic in 2016 and will likely do so again this time, so devastation apparently doesn’t even make it into daily press briefings by this president. After all, even a cursory look at the environmental conditions surrounding the intensity of these fires would raise serious questions about evidence of the arrival of climate change, which Trump insists — despite the science — does not exist, and he would have to acknowledge out loud that he is president only in parts of the country that vote for him.
The Bob Woodward book left the distinct impression that Donald Trump is unable to do his job. We see visceral evidence again in his silence in the face of harrowing fires.
As Politico noted, in these three weeks, “Trump tweeted, golfed, held news conferences and appeared at campaign rallies. He visited Louisiana in late August after Hurricane Laura killed 27 people, saying he wanted “to support the great people of Louisiana, it’s been a tremendous state for me.” But not much about California and Oregon. “West Coast residents wondered why he didn’t use his presidential bullhorn to summon support from Americans — except once to blame the state for not taking care of its forests.”
On that point, Trump neatly skips over the fact that these blazes are running wild through different kinds of forests — the dense Redwood forests in northern California are vastly different from those in Southern California’s ruined areas, and no single cleaning of forest floor technique, even if possible, would work the same way.
It also raises issues about continuing development of forested areas, creating towns and suburbs in areas where natural dangers should likely be a much bigger consideration than currently exists.
Plus, a third of California acreage is under control of the federal government — meaning that Trump could be asking himself that same question. And the fires in Washington and Oregon are not in the usual path of fires that hit California every couple of years.
Nevertheless, this is less a scientific argument than an outwardly political one.
As Always, Politics
In Slate, this week, columnist Mark Joseph Stern blamed Trump’s attitudes on the Electoral College, which “allows — indeed, encourages — Trump to ignore California’s wildfire crisis because he knows he cannot win the state. He doesn’t even pretend to govern the entire country, just red states and swing states. Those suffering in blue states mean nothing to him.”
If anything, the fires have seemed like a missed opportunity for Trump to appear presidential during a campaign in which voters are questioning whether a guy who thinks downplaying the obvious dangers of airborne pandemic should not be acknowledged publicly.
At a minimum, Trump could be expressing some empathy and could be helpful in squashing conspiracists who are insisting alternately that fires have been started by antifa leftists or right-wing lunatics. Instead, Trump says he has been binging television eight hours a day.
At best, he could be mobilizing more firefighters, more planes for airdrops, more actual financial help to the states that he wants to starve of money in the stalled negotiations for coronavirus aid.
The connective tissue here is whether Trump actually wants to do the job of president, which is hard, or merely to revel in pomp and circumstance appearances. In addition to pandemic, economic woes, and discord over social justice, it is clear climate needs thoughtful action.
If you can’t preside over the heat, Mr. Trump, get out of the forest.