Northern Californians weigh wildfires as presidential election looms large

By: Michaela Duncanson

Contributing Writer

Wildfire preparation has become part of Northern Californians’ autumn routine since 2017, but this year, the fire season has raged longer and with greater intensity than usual. Scientists and California Gov. Gavin Newsom point toward climate change as the reason these fires have become so intense and why the fire season is so much longer, but President Donald Trump denies this factor and blames California for forest mismanagement. 

This year, the extended wildfire season coincides with the 2020 presidential election, and Trump’s controversial positions have become yet another voting consideration for Californians.

According to Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), as of October 31, over 4,149,345 acres in California have burned this year. The year isn’t over yet, and this number is already about three million acres more than the average acreage burned from 2017 to 2019. During a Sept. 14 briefing, California state officials explained to Trump the role of climate change in these wildfires. In an exchange with Wade Crowfoot, California Natural Resources Secretary, Trump said, “I don’t think science knows,” and predicted “it’ll start getting cooler.”

Newsom mentioned to NBC a handful of methods for fire prevention and management tactics, but ultimately said, “There is something so fundamental that cannot be denied, and that is climate change.”

Trump has repeatedly — and erroneously — claimed that California is to blame for the wildfires as the state has failed to “sweep” the forest floors of debris. Ignoring the fact that according to a report by California’s Little Hoover Commission, the federal government owns and is responsible for more than 57% of forest land in California, Trump has threatened to withhold FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) support from the state because of how angered he is by Newsom’s statements. 

Trump’s position on climate change is an unpopular one, as a 2018 Yale Climate Communications study found that 69% of American adults believe the scientific evidence surrounding climate change. Donna Roscoe, from the Napa Valley, was shocked at Trump’s suggestion that California should be cleaning the floors of the 33 million acres of forest in the state. “That’s not how it works,” said Roscoe, who is studying biophysics at Amherst. “You need that dead plant material, the nutrients, so [the forests] can continue to grow.” 

Forest management researchers say the issue isn’t the amount of dead plant material on the forest floor, but the extreme dryness, heat, and high winds which have made much of the American West vulnerable to wildfires. When Trump argues for sweeping the forests, he is positing the example of forest management in Nordic countries with significantly different climate conditions than here. 

Roscoe lost her Napa home in the Atlas Fire of 2017. She said, “It was like losing your safe place in the universe, and like you’re just completely untethered. I wasn’t settled in college yet; my home was gone in California.” Roscoe will be voting Democrat this year because “this is us, this is climate change, something we’re doing, that we need to stop,” and she wants a president who agrees with science.

Napa’s economy is based around its world renowned Wine Country. Emma Payne, a UC Davis student from Calistoga, worked at Castello di Amorosa, a Napa Valley winery which partially burned in the Glass Fire last month. She said, “Soon enough, Napa Valley’s not gonna be the place for the quality of wine we have. And it’s not only gonna be because the weather’s getting warmer, but because it’s not gonna be feasible to build a whole multimillion dollar winery where it very will likely burn down.”

A Libertarian herself, Payne disagrees with the two-party political system and is shocked by support for Trump. She said, “Someone having a plan, and being vocal about that […] will probably sway people’s opinion because it’s a personal topic that has touched many people’s lives and they want something done about it.” Payne believes in climate change, and despite her dislike of the Republican versus Democrat system, she still wants a rational leader who moves toward climate change prevention policies.

Leslie Gurrola, an environmental science major at USF whose family almost had to evacuate during the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, said, “I feel like the people who are educated on climate change are definitely going to disagree with [Trump], but for people who don’t really know any better, or don’t know the science behind it, they’re probably gonna be easily influenced by him.” 

With the election a day away, Roscoe is one of many voters who want a president who will confront climate change and help California. “I wish my house didn’t burn down,” she said. “I don’t want other people to have to go through what I went through… I don’t want it to keep getting drier.”

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