Tuesday, August 4, 2015

California wildfires are burning the state to the ground. A New Deal could have prevented some of this chaos.

(In the one-minute video above, we see one of the many wildfires that are currently burning in California. Video published by USA Today on YouTube, August 4, 2015.)

Currently, about 21 wildfires are burning in California, torching over 134,000 acres. The National Guard has been deployed, more than 9,000 firefighters are battling the various blazes, and 13,000 people have been told to evacuate. The amount of acreage burned thus far in California is far beyond the state's average. (See, e.g., "California wildfires torch 134,000 acres - and counting," CNN, August 4, 2015).

Some amount of wildfire is natural and even beneficial to the environment. But the fires that are burning in the western United States right now (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska) have exceeded the beneficial stage. They're being caused by drought, excessive fuel on the ground (dead trees, dry vegetation), and a general lack of preparation.

Our Congress, which has been either blocked or led by Republicans these past many years, has addressed the wildfire problem by reducing funding for wildfire prevention. For example, this year "The GOP budgets envision cutting $1 billion from funding to fight wildfires" ("13 Reasons the Government Could Shut Down Again This Fall," Time, July 15, 2015).

That bears repeating: At a time when wildfires are increasing, our Republican "leaders" want to reduce our ability to fight (and prevent) them.

(CCC men fighting a fire in 1940. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)
Wildfires, when permitted to get out of control, as they are now, exacerbate global warming. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide when they're healthy, but emit carbon dioxide when they're burning or dying. The Property and Environment Research Center explains: "Wildfire can turn a forest that is a carbon sink at one time into a carbon source for many years that follow. Because wildfire is a major carbon source, reducing wildfire can help to control carbon emissions from the forest." In other words, it's a double-whammy. If trees and plants burn up they can no longer absorb carbon dioxide - and when they burn up they release carbon dioxide.

Now, 9,000 firefighters and the National Guard is a lot of manpower, right? But what if, in preceding years, California had utilized 120,000 men for fire prevention, e.g., removing dead trees & vegetation and building firebreaks? And what if these men had engaged in nearly one million man-days of such work? Sound like a pipe dream? Well, it needn't be, because that's exactly what happened in California during the 1930s. FDR and his fellow New Deal policymakers created the Civilian Conservation Corps to offer young unemployed men jobs in our nation's parks & forests. And among their many jobs were fire prevention and firefighting (Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, pp. 112-114). 

And what if, in addition to the 120,000 CCC men, California had had many thousands of other men available for fire prevention and firefighting, for example, some portion of the 110,000 Americans who were working in the WPA in California during the summer of 1936? Did you know that WPA workers made over 6,000 miles of firebreaks all over America between 1935 and 1943? (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, 1946, pp. 110 & 132).

Now, some people might say, "Well, it's not so much manpower as technology these days...and it would be too difficult to train people in modern firefighting techniques. We just can't replicate the 1930s experience." Baloney. If that were the case, California would not be using thousands of prisoners to fight wildfires. 

We could be doing a lot more to prevent wildfires and reduce their level of destructiveness. Unfortunately, Republican politicians are too busy trying to cut taxes for the super-wealthy, too busy trying to protect illegal tax evasion by the wealthy, too busy insulting low-income Americans, and too busy kissing the feet of the Koch brothers, in search of campaign contributions, to give a damn. Worse still, tens of millions of voters approve of this behavior - eagerly electing more and more Republicans into Congress.

Isn't that amazing?

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