Malden, after a wildfire burned down 80% of the town’s buildings in Eastern Washington. COURTESY PHOTO, State Governor’s Office

Malden, after a wildfire burned down 80% of the town’s buildings in Eastern Washington. COURTESY PHOTO, State Governor’s Office

Inslee sends letter to Trump on the role of climate change in historic wildfires

I implore you to recognize the science behind this destruction’

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sent the following letter Sept. 14 to President Donald Trump about the role of climate change in historic wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington:

Mr. President,

I hope you had an enlightening trip to the West Coast, where your refusal to address climate change — and your active steps to enable even more carbon pollution — will accelerate devastating wildfires like those you’re seeing today. I implore you to recognize the science behind this destruction and stop your path of distortion and deception.

Rapid climate change driven by human activity has created a fusion of natural risk and man-made catalysts to accelerate these unnatural disasters. Study after study confirm the close connection between climate change and intensifying wildfires. Your reckless statements that climate change is a hoax and your gutting of environmental policies benefit no one but fossil fuel companies.

These willful denials are harming our nation and our people. Today, you said about the climate: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” That is false. This abandonment of leadership has once again left the states on their own to fight this existential threat to our people.

The knowledge and tools are at your disposal to be a leader if you choose. Every day, climate experts are showing us ways to reduce carbon pollution while helping our health and economy.

Wildfires are not new in the Western states, yet the 21st century is quickly laying claim to the worst levels of devastation we have ever seen. It took five days for 2020 to become our state’s second-worst fire season on record with more than 600,000 acres burned, eclipsed only by the 1.1 million acres burned in 2015. Worse events in California and Oregon have sent historic levels of smoke to the Puget Sound region, forcing millions of Washingtonians indoors until it passes.

Mr. President, our temperatures are consistently rising while moisture is increasingly evaporating. Forest management is merely one piece of the puzzle — something our own firefighters would be quick to remind you. Since 2009, our state has spent more than $130 million for forest health and fire preparedness. These events still overwhelm our residents and resources, because these fires are unlike anything people have seen before.

You have worked to distract from our country’s most critical driver of long-term risk in favor of a more politically convenient target — state forest management. This shows an utter lack of understanding about the robust forest management plans our states already have in place, as well as the need for our federal partners to work more collaboratively with us on forest health issues.

Your comments also betray ignorance of the very sources and locations of these wildfires. They don’t just happen in the forests; the fire that burned 80 percent of the buildings in Malden, Washington, was a grass and brush fire. These fires could not be prevented by thinning timber because there is no timber to thin.

As Dana Skelly, a fuels program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Portland, told the Washington Post last week: “The systems that people rely on to help them get through these events are completely maxed out.”

To Stefan Doerr, a geographer at Swansea University in Wales and a chief editor of the International Journal of Wildland Fire, it’s basic physics: “If we have higher temp[eratures], we have a greater probability of fire starting, fire spreading, and fire intensifying.”

The federal government produced a rigorous, comprehensive report, the National Climate Assessment, that concluded “the annual area burned in the western United States could increase 2–6 times from the present” if current trends continue, due to human-caused climate change.

Research by the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington shows our region is dealing with higher temperatures and less frost, which is both affecting our water reclamation efforts and heightening conditions for fires throughout our diverse ecosystems, not just forests. The group projects temperatures will rise rapidly throughout this century, making conditions ripe for longer fire seasons and more challenging circumstances for trying to mitigate them.

Climate change is doing more damage to our communities faster than anyone thought. Hotter temperatures are drawing more moisture out of soils, grasses, bushes and trees — which evolved over thousands of years to withstand less severe fires — turning them into the perfect fuel for ignition.

I would urge you to abandon your half-baked theories and engage in good faith about the obvious relationship between climate change and wildfires.

The rules of fighting wildfires are changing because our climate is changing. There is no fire suppression plan on this planet that does anyone any good if it doesn’t even acknowledge the role of climate change. Deliberate and decisive action must be taken on a global scale, with the United States in the lead.

It is time to abandon the disastrous course that now envelops us in smoke and ash. A new approach could slow or turn around the damage done by climate change, all while building a more robust and more sustainable future for all 50 states.

The states are willing and eager to work in partnership with the federal government to protect all Americans from the ravages of climate change. Washingtonians in places such as Malden, Bonney Lake, Bridgeport and Graham — which have all begun long roads to recovery from the fires of recent days — deserve as much.

Sincerely,

Gov. Jay Inslee


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