How to Get California’s Wildfires Under Control

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The wildfires raging in California have killed at least 24 in less than a month. How well has the state responded to the wildfires, including steps to prevent them? What is the perspective of Californians on how well the state has dealt with the threat? Is something not being done to get this season’s fires under control? John Cox, head of the nonpartisan organization CHANGE-CA, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss.

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by John Cox, head of the nonpartisan organization CHANGE-CA. John, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

John Cox: Great to be with you, Rachel.

Del Guidice: Well, as everyone knows, or I’m sure most people do, wildfires have been raging in the state of California and have killed at least 24 people in less than a month. John, can you start off by giving us a little bit of a glimpse into what’s been happening in California?

Cox: Yeah. It’s nothing short of a disaster throughout the entire state, and it’s not just the fact that the fires are burning and killing people, which is horrendous in and of itself, it’s also costing just incredible amounts of time and money, as well as destroying the environment.

The air is virtually unbreathable in most parts of Northern California. And that in itself is contributing to more problems in the atmosphere across the entire country.

I just read today that the Midwest is now having the smoke visit it and it’s just going to be moving all across the world. So this is really a bad situation and frankly, it doesn’t have to be that way, Rachel, and I hope we’ll talk about the solutions that really have been building.

The problem has been building up for 30 years or more, and there are solutions, but a lot of the political leadership is just not interested in doing what’s necessary to counter this awful situation.

Del Guidice: Yeah, we’ll definitely get to that. I want to ask, though, first, what is your perspective on how the state of California has handled the wildfires? You mentioned … there’s been issues for the past 30 years, what is your perspective on how it’s been handled?

Cox: Well, first of all, we have to take our hats off and we have to just thank God for the wonderful work of our firefighters. The idea that they’re just working in such horrendous conditions, not only the fires, but also the tremendous heat and the winds, and really it’s an inferno. We just need to thank our … firefighters and our first responders.

Again, I hope we get into the solutions here because the politicians are all quick to blame worldwide phenomenon like the climate change situation and really and truly this is a homegrown problem that has built up over several decades and clearly humanity hasn’t helped in some respects because we keep building further and further into the forest. So there’s that urban wildlife interface that we hear a lot about.

But if we really were looking at feasible solutions and better management, I think that this would not be anywhere near the problem it’s become. And frankly, the people of California deserve to have a fix, a solution to this.

That’s one of the things that I’ve been arguing, I did in my run for governor in 2018, and I’m doing it again with this … nonpartisan organization because it’s really hurting our quality of life here.

Del Guidice: You have talked about several ideas that you have on how to get these wildfires under control. What do you think, John, can be done?

Cox: First of all, the problem has built up, Rachel, over the years because a lot of well-meaning legislation, I suppose—I mean, the Sierra Club or the National Resources Defense Council, a lot of environmental lobbying groups raised prodigious amounts of money, and based upon the idea that we need to make sure that we don’t touch our forest and we protect wildlife in the forest.

And listen, I’m all for wildlife, I’m all for protecting our green, wonderful world, but we have to balance these things out.

The Native Americans have dealt with fire risk for centuries, essentially, and it’s no less of an issue today than it ever has been. Vibrant, healthy forests are those forests which are basically managed in a way that allows them to grow and allows the control of fire risk, which has obviously been here for generations and centuries.

So that’s the part that’s really been ignored in this whole process. And I know it’s this subject of this political polarization that we’re finding in the country right now, but people’s lives are at stake here.

The air is relatively unbreathable and we are spending prodigious amounts of money fighting these fires. And we really should be talking about those solutions of forest management that really have been ignored or have been put to the sidelines because of these lobbying efforts by a lot of these groups.

I would point out, Rachel, that as recently as the late ’70s, California had a very vibrant lumber industry. We had something like 110 very active sawmill operations, mostly in the northern part of the state, but frankly, all around the state. And these lumber operations were dependent upon keeping the forest healthy.

So they did controlled burns, they built fire breaks, they cut trees, of course, but they also replanted trees. It’s a renewable resource and nobody has an interest in having more and healthier forests than somebody who’s very livelihood depends on being able to grow trees and harvest them.

So this is something that’s been, as I said, going on for decades and centuries, but in the last 30, 40 years, the lumber industry has been decimated. …We’ve gone from 110 sawmills, I think, to down to single digits, like around five or six today.

The result has been that the forests have not been touched, which [to] some people may look as a public good, but the trouble is that there’s been beetle infestations and some amount of drought that’s happened, that’s always happened in California, and a lot of these trees have died and they’re just left to sit there and fall and dot the landscape.

And of course what they are is tinder for these incredible infernos that get started. They may start with human means or they may start because of lightning, but it doesn’t matter. The tinder just goes up in flames and quickly becomes an inferno.

Then, as you might know, Rachel, these fires create a lot of wind because wind is the product, generally, of differences in temperatures. And so these fires get so hot and cause even more wind, which feeds the flames even more, it makes it travel, so that these small fires ultimately turn into raging infernos that are just almost impossible to stop and cover just literally millions of acres.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m talking about a solution, such as more aviation equipment and more firefighters.

Del Guidice: Well, one idea, John, you have mentioned is the creation of an updated state Air Force corps, including a large fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter, which would be dedicated to rapid response and containment of these wildfires. Can you tell us a little bit about how this would work?

Cox: Well, I have visited the fires. I was there during the campaign and saw the destruction up in Northern California, near Redding and Chico and Yuba City and a lot of the areas, Oroville, that are now in the news, but a lot of these places burned in 2017 and 2018 as well.

I talked to the firefighters and they told me that they’re flying Vietnam-era helicopters that have been recycled and repurposed, but these are 40-year-old pieces of equipment that just don’t have the power that we would expect and need, frankly. And there’s just limited use available for these.

One of the things that we’ve been doing in the state, Rachel, is we’ve been spending an inordinate amount of money on a train going into the Central Valley that is way over budget, way behind schedule, and frankly, has very few prospects for much in the way of ridership.

And the politicians have had no problem, Jerry Brown and now Gavin Newsom, have no problem spending literally of millions and even billions on this train and they’ve ignored and not funded the purchase of equipment.

So I’ve called for ending that train and deploying those resources to buy modern, effective, good equipment. We should have an all-overwhelming resource of aviation equipment, first of all, that would be able to be put to bear.

One of the things in the military that you’ve heard about with the issues in Iraq and other things like that [was] this idea of applying overwhelming force early on. In the fog of war, it demoralizes the opponent, etc. There’s certain benefits for that.

In the context of fighting forest fires, it’s especially important to have a quick-acting, overwhelming force. And why? Because you need to do that to get these fires put out or controlled before they turn into raging infernos because once they get going, once they turn into these infernos, as I explained, they create their own heat and fire and wind, and the wind causes them to get even hotter and more dangerous and causes them to travel further.

So you’ve got even more of a problem with the breadth of these fires. So the ability to go in very quickly and with overwhelming force, and that is best done with aviation.

Our firefighters are absolutely necessary on the ground, but we really have got to have this overwhelming air force that would be able to go in. And that ounce of prevention, Rachel, would be worth more than a pound of cure from the firefighters and the risk to human life that that entails.

Del Guidice: Well, thank you for sharing that. I’m curious, I wanted to ask, what is Californian’s perspective on how well their state has responded to the threat of these wildfires?

Cox: Well, it’s interesting. The media here is all about repeating what some of the politicians, like the governor, have said that, “Gee, this is just climate change and we haven’t addressed climate change and therefore just expect this stuff.”

Well, Rachel, I’m a businessman, I’ve been in business for 40 years, started with nothing and built a business, but the way I built it was I solved problems.

I never had the luxury of being able to just say, “Oh, gee, I’m going to blame some other force that is, frankly, not necessarily curable.” And then just let the problem continue to fester. I’ve had to solve the problems in order to stay in business.

I think that’s the problem here in California. You have a lot of politicians who sit there and they jawbone about the climate change debate, which we don’t need to necessarily get into, but clearly, by the way, it’s a worldwide problem.

And it’s caused more, frankly, by India and China dumping tons of particulate pollution into the atmosphere from coal energy plants than anything California’s done. California has done quite a bit to counter climate change.

But the real issue is that these politicians just pass it off on that and they don’t really get to the nub of solutions. Coming up with ideas like controlled burns, and clearing dead trees, and building roads, and building fire breaks, and the Air Force, and updating our equipment—those are things that they kind of put on the back burner and they want people to just focus on climate change.

Maybe that’s because they have lobbying groups that want more solar and wind power and they want to make sure that people are energized or activated to get those kinds of things inputted.

But we really have to take a step back and say, “What is going to solve this problem and tackle these fires?” And that’s one change California is dedicated to, and that is to try to get some solutions to this problem.

Del Guidice: Well, on that note, John, you had mentioned the whole discussion surrounding climate change and former President [Barack] Obama had said that we have clear evidence that climate change is responsible for the wildfires. What do you think of that?

Cox: I don’t agree with that at all. Certainly the fires have occurred when the weather is hot. Well, it’s always hot in August in California. I’ve lived here for a number of years. My family has been here for 40, 50 years and it always gets hot in July and August. It also doesn’t rain very much in July and August in California, so it may be worse now.

The Earth has gone through a warming of sorts. I won’t deny that one iota. It’s had that before, the ’30s. If you remember that we had the Dust Bowl and we had significant increase in temperatures, but that’s not an excuse for these fires.

These fires have been far worse because we don’t have a viable lumber and timber industry that would take care of the forest and we also have not spent the resources ourselves as federal and state agencies to deal with the tinder buildup and to do the controlled burns and do the fire breaks and do the roads into the forest so that our equipment can get back in there.

There’s a whole lot of things that have caused this problem that just get so out of hand. And it is absolutely disingenuous to just sit there and pass it off as climate change that we can’t do anything about.

Del Guidice: Well, lastly, John, I know President [Donald] Trump is visiting the region today, surveying what’s happened as a result of these fires as they continue. What’s your perspective on how the president has responded to the wildfires?

Cox: Well, the president has talked about forest management and listen, he’s got a lot of issues on his plate and he needs to, I think, address a lot of different things, but this is really a national problem.

As I said, the smoke is going east and it’s going to hit the Midwest and East Coast and certainly it doesn’t add to the air quality of the entire planet. So it needs to be dealt with.

There’s a lot of people in Washington, Oregon, California, and other areas that are dealing with this and are dying. So I certainly think it’s within his providence to do something.

Frankly, he needs a lot of cooperation from the governors. And I wish he were getting that from the California governor, as well as the governors of Washington and Oregon, who just like the California governor, want to just blame climate change and not deal with the practical realities of getting the actual problem solved.

If I were the governor of the state, I would be talking every single day about buying better aviation equipment, about getting fire breaks and controlled burns, and doing more to manage these forests. And I think that’s what the president’s been talking about and that’s what needs to get done.

Del Guidice: Well, John, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast” and talking through what’s been happening in California. We appreciate having you.

Cox: Thank you, Rachel. Good to be with you.


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