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While California burns, Trump tweets nonsense

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The Dust Bowl made its way into American culture through the songs of Woodie Guthrie, the novels of John Steinbeck, and most recently Timothy Egan’s magisterial, The Worst Hard Time. But its hold on our historic imagination was triggered by millions of “dust bowl” refugees who clogged the entrance stations to California for months, altered the demography of the nation, and emptied counties throughout the South-Central United States of their farming populations.

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This article first appeared on Salon.

We don’t know yet if the Great Burning which is being unleashed on the Western United States will reach, or even exceed, the disruptive impact of the great droughts and dust storms of the 1930’s.  But we do know, even if we don’t want to admit, that what we face is not simply an unusually big fire season. We should think of the more than 100 wildfires raging across the West as part of a single phenomenon – not individual blazes whose cause can be found in a particular lightning strike, match, downed power line or equipment spark.

I gasped when I stumbled upon this incredible interactive graphic from the Forest Service showing the impact – in fires and smoke both – of the burgeoning incineration of the West.  What’s important about the images is the pink showing that there are huge parts of the West with no fires – but lethal quantities of smoke. Sacramento isn’t near any blazes (shown as flames) but health officials have urged residents to remain entirely indoors this summer because the air is so toxic. Places that had major fires last year might have thought they were OK in 2018 – nothing left to burn — but what security is there when the smoke load is enough to choke areas hundreds of miles from a flame?

California’s County Fire was the earliest recorded blaze of such intensity; the San Juan National Forest has been closed for the first time; the Carr Fire did the impossible and leapt the Sacramento River on its way to becoming “a fire tornado,”; fire chiefs routinely describe this year’s blazes as “extreme” and “erratic”. They warn that the blazes are displaying “fire behavior that firefighters have never seen before…”

The direct costs of fighting the fires are draining the treasuries of states as rich as California. Meanwhile, federal firefighting costs have tripled in a decade; even calling in the National Guard during desperate shortages of firefighters and equipment.

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President Trump’s tweets notwithstanding, the one thing there is no shortage of is water to fight the flames: rivers and lakes provide massively more than helicopters and hoses can deliver to remote fire lines.

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What unleashed this inferno? We did.

Three excesses came together.  Too much fuel on the land, too much carbon in the sky, and too many houses in the woods. A century of fire suppression, dousing the low-intensity fires that clearer out small wood, gas and brush, simply meant that when a fire came – as it always did – it came harder,  hotter, and higher. Climate disruption – now working in full force – meant more extreme seasons. Wet years so grass and brush could flourish, droughts to turn them into tinder, and hotter summers to prime them to explode at the first spark. Finally, as populations moved away from urban areas, more and more homes were built in harm’s way. Once compact Western towns sprawled deep into the woods. Any major wildfire now threatens not two or three but hundreds of homes.

So what does this new normal mean?

The rural, small-town West has boomed by growth driven by retirees, tourists, recreation and outdoor lovers. But the outdoor, healthy lifestyle desired by the drive West now stands in question as rafting companies cancel float trips, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival shuts down its open-air theater, gas masks spring up on the streets of outdoor meccas, well established bakeries in Napa County can’t  afford sugar and flour, and for sale signs go up on the homes retirees chose for clean air and good weather.

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We don’t yet have a Dust Bowl-scale of outmigration. We could.

In the 1930’s the Roosevelt Administration arrived too late to prevent the catastrophe. It intervened quickly. By 1938 its soil conservation measures had dramatically reduced the dust storms and soil loss. The Trump Administration is not even thinking seriously about the Great Burning – it rather seeks to make at least one of its sources, climate change, much worse.

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There is no federal call for a massive effort to clear the landscape of excessive fuel load. Fire expert Stephen Pyne says “we could probably have 10 times, 20 times more good fire before we got back to what it should be.” (It appears, however, that restoring a forest for low-intensity fires costs about as much per acre as fighting one – with the important difference that in one case you have a living forest afterward.) That’s a lot of work, and a lot of resistance from the public – people like privacy around their houses in the woods. They don’t like controlled burning or thinning out their back windows.

Worse, not even the region has grasped the ubiquity of this problem, this new normal. It doesn’t have a name – I borrowed “the Great Burning” from the Book of Revelations. People are just beginning to comment that five years ago – before the last drought – fires rarely touched our lives unless we lived near an occasional big one – now most Westerners are choking through this summer even in cities, and huge numbers have had their weekend or vacation plans burned out.

As so often with this administration, its own voters will pay the biggest price.

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Ironically, it may be that evangelical symbol of divine wrath, fire, that offers a possible bridge between red and blue America, not just on climate change, but on that often forgotten language in the constitution – the federal government exists to promote the general welfare. Inferno proofing the west seems like a good example.

Carl Pope is the Executive Director of the Sierra Club.


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2020 Election

Trump shows all the signs of being ‘rattled’ now that the White House is under siege from protesters: columnist

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In a column for the Atlantic, longtime political observer Peter Nicholas stated that Donald Trump is showing all the signs of a scared man as massive protests have broken out across the country over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four former Minneapolis cops -- and angry Americans are taking their case all the way up to the White House gates.

As Nicholas wrote, "Presidents live within a protective cocoon built and continually fortified for one purpose: keeping them alive. But inside the White House compound these days, Donald Trump seems rattled by what’s transpiring outside the windows of his historic residence."

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Black Londoner explains George Floyd protester support with story of how cops murdered his brother

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In an interview with MSNBC's Molly Hunter, a Black Londoner explained why he turned out for a protest near Trafalgar Square in support of Americans who have hit the streets in the U.S. over the murder of George Floyd by four former Minneapolis police officers.

According to the man -- identified as Daniel and who was wearing a COVID-19 mask and a New York Yankees hat -- his brother was also murdered by police and the cops walked free.

"You've been marching all day," Hunter began. "Look, I have two questions for you: what was it like watching the U.S. this week from London? Does it resonate?

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Denver cops busted for doing drive-by shootings of anti-police brutality protesters

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In a video posted to Twitter, a young Denver man protesting the killing of George Floyd at the hands of four former Minnesota police officers, found himself on the receiving end of an attack by police himself as he filmed them riding on the side of a truck -- only to have his phone hit by a fired police projectile while still in his hand.

According to Rachelle D'nae, a staff writer at Slate, her brother went to the Denver protest and was filming the officers when the incident occurred.

"My older brother went to a protest in Denver last night. as the police were leaving, one of them shot him with a pepper pellet that smashed the back of his phone and exploded in his face. they were ~30 feet from each other and it looks like the officer aimed directly at his face," she wrote before adding in a second tweet, "when my brother told me he was going I prepared for the worst. I made sure he had my number memorized so I could bail him out if I needed to and I sat up until he made it home, trying not to cry as he told me he had been tear-gassed."

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