California wildfires warn against the dangers of social combustion
The residents of Paradise were as prepared as could be. They had scripted escape strategies and practiced a mock evacuation exercise in anticipation of the day when their little Northern California town might be threatened by forest fire.
But it was all for naught. Last Thursday, a raging wildfire swept through their town with a vengeance; there was no time for plans, only flight. At least 42 victims lost their lives, hundreds remain missing, and the city of 26,000 has virtually disappeared from the map.
Adding insult to injury was the political opportunism that seeks to exploit every tragedy. As the ashes of Paradise smoldered, Donald Trump fired off a prototypical tweet blaming forest mismanagement for the disaster and threatening to withhold federal relief funds from California.
Everyone from firefighters to climatologists to the Hollywood elite responded to the presidentís accusation with incendiary fury, and rightly so. With baffling predictability, Mr. Trump proved yet again how tone-deaf he can be to the effect of his words on friend and foe alike.
But the presidentís many detractors did not limit themselves to attacking him for insensitivity and poor timing. They also attacked the content of his statement, exposing yet again their own ideological myopia.
For decades, conservation experts have warned that a century of poor forest management has dangerously increased the risk and ferocity of high-intensity fires like the ones that repeatedly ravage California.
According to the Washington Forest Protection Association, ďThe greatest threat of catastrophic wildfire today is in U.S. National Forests, where years of fire suppression practices in the 20th century has allowed our federally-owned forests to reach dangerous fuel load levels.Ē
So while pundits, politicians, and play-actors co-opt the misfortune of Paradise as just another political football, perhaps the rest of us can give some small meaning to their suffering by seeking lessons to restore sanity and sensitivity to our public discourse.
THE EASY ROAD, RARELY IS
Short-term gains almost never outweigh long-term costs. Of course, the planning and man-power required to oversee controlled burns is complicated and expensive. Itís much easier to suppress fires completely. But is it worth creating conditions for the inevitable catastrophic conflagrations that destroy lives?
Ask the residents of Paradise what they think.
Then apply the lesson beyond firefighting: how many scandals and disasters litter the headlines because individuals and institutions fail to anticipate the consequences of convenience and immediate gratification? And why do so many people of power and influence refuse to learn the lesson?
2. FACT ARE FACTS, NO MATTER HOW INCONVENIENT
Is climate change contributing to the frequency and destructiveness of wildfires? Possibly. But even if it is, the authorities most qualified to assess the situation have identified forest management practices as the primary culprit.
Those who reject expert conclusions in order to advance their own ideologies or score points against a diplomatically inept president reveal themselves for what they are: partisan hacks who care more about winning arguments than about solving problems or protecting victims.
It's tactics like these that have killed reasoned debate in America. When facts donít fit the narrative, ideologues discard the data rather than reexamine their preconceptions.
3. KNOW WHEN TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT, EVEN WHEN YOUíRE RIGHT
After two years in office, itís bewildering how clueless President Trump remains about public reaction to his statements and their timing. Does he not care? Is it calculated political theater? Is he psychologically incapable of not being the center of attention? No one seems to know. Perhaps he doesnít know himself.
Even when the facts are on his side, his unfiltered bellicosity is mortifying and unpresidential, especially in the face of genuine human suffering. As leader of the free world, he has a moral responsibility to do better.
And as citizens of the free world, so do we all.
King Solomon warns: Intellect is the source of life to those who use it, but folly is the chastisement of fools.
Common sense dictates an ethical imperative to call the president out for his ill-considered bravado and tactless trumpery.
But refusal to deal in facts makes a mockery of all political debate, and those who expose their own contempt for truth discredit themselves on all subjects and forfeit whatever credibility they might have to claim the high ground.