The West Is Going Up in Flames


I woke to a blood-red sky and air choked with smoke last week in the British Columbia wilderness. The Shag and Tweedsmuir fires burning just eastward may have been the closest, but I’d seen a dozen others from a float plane over the Coast Range the day before. Five-hundred-plus fires are torching British Columbia, which has declared a state of emergency. Fires are raging in Montana, Oregon and California, too.

As someone who studies the earth for a living, I’m shocked at the transformations we’re seeing right now. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, the North Pole is melting, and fires are ravaging the West again after last year’s record season. Global warming is here. What’s equally shocking is our country’s response. As the West burns, we’re proposing to roll back vehicle fuel efficiency standards and, as of this week, gut the Clean Power Plan, policies that would fight climate change and much more.

I can’t imagine a more misguided set of policies for our health, national security and pocketbooks. Dirty air from vehicles and power plants kills half of the 200,000 Americans who die each year from air pollution. Why would we gut policies that save thousands of lives and eliminate tens of thousands of cases of childhood asthma, bronchitis and emphysema annually? Why wouldn’t we want more efficient cars when we’re still importing three million barrels of oil a day from OPEC countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela?

The more immediate goal of the rollbacks, though, is to kill policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That goal is equally short-sighted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that weather disasters caused by mega-floods, droughts, storms and fires cost Americans $300 billion last year—$100 billion more than ever before. Each of us is paying for inaction through our wallets and our health.

Fires have always razed the west, but pollution from cars and power plants is making droughts and climate extremes worse. Here in California, fires are becoming bigger and more dangerous. The state’s largest fire ever is burning now; it’s scorched 400,000 acres in Mendocino County. The Carr Fire, California’s sixth largest ever, is still burning, too. It’s torched 230,000 acres in Shasta County, killing seven people and destroying a thousand homes. And the ongoing Ferguson Fire, which closed Yosemite National Park for three weeks, has burned a hundred thousand acres, the biggest blaze the Sierra National Forest has ever seen.

Climate change made last year’s catastrophic Tubbs Fire worse, too. The hottest summer on record in Northern California followed one of the wettest winters ever, leaving a carpet of plants tinder dry. The fire destroyed 2,800 homes and killed 22 people, many of them in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. The same fires also gave the San Francisco Bay area its worst air quality ever. Yesterday, again because of fires, our air quality was three times worse than Beijing’s.

People are vulnerable. My friend barely made it out of her home alive last month when the Holiday Hill Fire burned homes in the Fairview/Cuesta Verde neighborhood of Goleta, California. Only when she saw flames from her window did she grab her dogs and purse and dash away. A 9 P.M. fire that destroyed houses on her street could have been catastrophic if it had happened at midnight when people were sleeping.

Let’s not mince words. By rolling back fuel mileage standards and the Clean Power Plan, we’re playing with fire. And the long night that will last centuries is just beginning.