An in-depth investigation found that federal, state and local governments were aware of California’s vulnerability to wildfires, but failed to take the necessary steps to prevent its devastation.
California residents have recently been forced to deal with some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history. Over the course of a 13-month period that began in October 2017, four major fires scorched California. The fires ultimately burned 700,000 acres of land, destroying nearly 27,000 properties and killing over 100 people.
The devastation has left leaders wondering who — or what — is to blame.
California and the Trump administration have sparred heavily over what was responsible for the fires. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and environmental activists have directed blame at climate change, claiming that rising temperatures make the fires more brutal. California officials are currently investigating whether a malfunction in an electric utility’s equipment may have caused one of the fires.
Mounting evidence suggest the wildfires were in large part a result of regulatory failure. ProPublica, an investigative outlet based in New York, reviewed records and conducted dozens of interviews concerning one of these deadly fires: the Carr Fire. Its team ultimately concluded that “every level of government” was aware for years that the state was at risk of dangerous wildfires, but did not take preventative measures.
The lack of preparedness allowed the Carr Fire — which began in the northern part of the state in Shasta County — to burn and destroy an enormous amount of property.
“We repeatedly have this discussion,” Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University and author, said to ProPublica. “It has more relevance now. California has wildfire fighting capability unlike any place in the world. The fact they can’t control the fires suggests that continuing that model will not produce different results. It’s not working. It hasn’t worked for a long time.”
Concerning Route 299 — a major highway where the Carr Fire began — local officials failed to clear shrubbery that typically lines the hot roadway, despite appeals from transportation officials to do so. Federal park service officials tasked with preventing fires in the Shasta County area operated with a “fraction” of the funds and staffing needed to prevent deadly fires. At the same time, the local parks team, the investigation found, was greatly limited by air pollution regulations.
President Donald Trump, a skeptic of climate change, has hammered the state for what he says is poor forest management. The Republican president has even threatened to cut off federal funds if California leaders didn’t change their policy.
“California, get on the ball. Because we’re not going to hand you any more money. It’s ridiculous, okay?” Trump said in October during a state leadership conference in Washington, D.C., which included California representatives. “Do you know the kind of money you’re talking about for the state and for the federal government?”
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