Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

“...But the gift of life remains”Fire Wreaks Havoc in California as Thousands are Displaced (with Reconstruction Far Out of Sight)

By Sydney EisenbergPublished November 19, 2018

Image tweeted in response to President Trump's criticism of California forest management
Toward the end of the week of November 5th, a series of wildfires began to tear through Northern and Southern California. Over a quarter of a million people have been forced to evacuate as the fires rage through the state, threatening everything from personal homes to famous Hollywood sets.

UPDATE: As of Sunday night, November 18, the Camp Fire death toll has risen to 77 people, with nearly 1,000 still missing. The Camp Fire is about 65% contained. The Woolsey Fire has killed three people, and is now about 91% contained.

Apparently “billions of dollars are given each year. . . all because of gross mismanagement of the forests,” according to President Donald Trump and his now-infamous tweets about the wildfires that have been tearing through California for nearly two weeks. However, as many pointed out, it was the President himself who proposed major budget cuts to the EPA and the U.S. Forest Service that formerly protected the national forests now threatened by raging wildfires throughout the state of California. In the north, Paradise, a town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, has been leveled by the Camp Fire that has since destroyed 130,000 acres of land. In the south, the Hill Fire (now contained) and the Woolsey Fire have forced over a quarter of a million people to evacuate the region just north of Los Angeles. The fires burning throughout the state have served as a harsh reminder of the importance of funding to the EPA and U.S. Forest Service for providing assistance to firefighters battling major wildfires as well as funding for general forest management, not to mention highlighting the devastating consequences of climate change.

The first of the devastating California wildfires is the Camp Fire in Northern California. About 80 miles north of Sacramento, Camp Fire has earned the title of “most destructive wildfire in California history”  after nearly completely destroying the town of Paradise, CA. Among the destroyed structures was a unique 132-year-old Gold Rush-era bridge, the only “three-span truss bridge of its kind in the United States.” Over the last few days, the wildfire has also earned the title of deadliest wildfire in California history, reaping a death toll of 56 people with over 100 people still missing. Furthermore, the Camp Fire is now considered one of the deadliest wildfires in United States history, claiming the most lives since the Cloquet Fire in Minnesota in 1918 killed 450 people. To assist the state in handling the disastrous outcome of the fire, on Sunday, November 11, California Governor Jerry Brown requested a “presidential major disaster declaration” so that residents of affected regions could seek crisis counseling as well as unemployment and housing assistance. Initially, Trump seemed to find the declaration unnecessary, posting tweets that alternated between extending his sympathy and criticizing the state for its poor forest management. In response to the tweets that demeaned the efforts of firefighters across the state, the California Professional Firefighters president Brian Rice lashed out at the President, saying of Trump’s tweets:

“The president’s message attacking California and threatening to withhold aid to the victims of the cataclysmic fires is Ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines.”

Within a few days of Governor Brown’s request and Rice’s tweet, President Trump decided to make an official presidential disaster declaration, sending additional resources and personnel to help both the active-duty firefighters and the displaced victims of the fires. However, with only about 40% containmentand full containment not expected until the end of the month, it is unlikely that Camp Fire is done wreaking havoc on Paradise and the surrounding region.  Already, among estimates of 7,600 destroyed residences and tens of thousands of displaced people without homes to return to, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) predicts that it will take “several years” to rebuild the town and, doubtlessly, millions and millions of dollars.

At the same time, two other fires have been sweeping through the towns outside of Los Angeles. The Hill Fire (now contained) and the Woolsey Fire have been burning through Malibu and other towns outside of LA, forcing several celebrities to evacuate their homes. The Hill Fire only destroyed 2 structures before it was contained (to at least 94%, but presumed fully as of Thursday), but the Woolsey Fire has destroyed nearly 1,000 structures and continues to burn. Luckily, as of Wednesday, the wildfire has been about 52% contained, and containment seems to be increasing by at least 5% every day. However, although residents are now slowly being allowed to return to their homes, the southern California has also left death and destruction in its wake (though not nearly as much as the Camp Fire). So far, according to the LA Times, three people have died in fire-related deaths, and many famous Hollywood structures have been destroyed. The Paramount Ranch, one of the filming locations of HBO hit TV show “Westworld,” has reportedly been at least partially destroyed by the wildfire. In addition to being a major financial loss, the destruction of Paramount Ranch is a major loss of a part of film history; since 1927, the ranch was usedin everything from TV shows such as “The Mentalist,” “Weeds,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Quickdraw,” “Carnivàle,” and “Best of the West” to films such as “Caught in the Draft” and “The Lake House.”

The historic Paramount Ranch was destroyed in the Woolsey fire          Gerard Butler's home was destroyed in the Woolsey fire

Many celebrities have also been forced to evacuate their homes. Some, such as Gerard Butler, have already returned to partially destroyed homes while others anxiously wait to learn of their homes’ fates. The reconstruction of residences destroyed in the Woolsey Fire is sure to cost an exorbitant sum as celebrities rebuild their destroyed multi-million dollar-homes (or buy new ones). However, the Woolsey Fire has instilled more than just a fear of destruction: it has publicly reminded celebrities and their adoring fans of the importance of life rather than material possessions. Unsurprisingly, many celebrities took to Twitter to share their evacuation stories and well wishes for anyone affected by the fires.

As hundreds of thousands of people face the consequences of wildfires raging through California, the rest of the country is seeing the pain, devastation, and destruction that results from the defunding of the EPA and U.S. Forest Service as well as climate change. Firefighters are risking their lives every day to fight these wildfires and prevent them from causing more fatalities, and without financial assistance and additional personnel, the state would not have enough resources to combat the fires on its own. In the coming weeks, with the support of thousands of out-of-state firefighters and federal disaster relief assistance, hopefully California will be able to successfully contain the fires and begin the (expensive) process of reconstruction. And maybe for the coming fiscal year (FY2020), President Trump will reinstate at least some of the funding of the EPA to increase measures taken for national forest management and fight climate change.

Works Cited

Camp Fire, Paradise, California

[1]       https://www.gov.ca.gov/2018/11/11/governor-brown-requests-presidential-major-disaster-declaration-will-join-emergency-officials-to-provide-wildfire-update-today-at-state-operations-center/

[2]       https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article221486490.html

[3]       https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-wildfires/troops-sift-through-california-wildfire-ruins-amid-fears-death-toll-will-rise-idUSKCN1NK126

[4]       http://time.com/5453710/california-camp-fire-deadliest-wildfires-us-history/

[5]       https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/death-toll-northern-california-wildfire-climbs-48-grim-search-continues-n935656

[6]       https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46211514

Woolsey Fire (and Hill Fire), Southern California

[7]       https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/2018/11/14/woolsey-fire-update-victim-found-containment-increased/2000226002/

[8]       http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-woolsey-fire-response-20181114-story.html

[9]       https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/09/entertainment/kim-kardashian-alyssa-milano-wildfires-california/index.html

[10]     https://www.cbsnews.com/news/woolsey-fire-california-latest-wildfires-damage-westworld-bachelor-mansion-hollywood-celebrity-evacuations-2018-11-11/

[11]     https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/10/us/paramount-ranch-burns-wildfire/index.html

[12]     https://variety.com/2018/film/news/westworld-paramount-ranch-western-town-woolsey-fire-1203024785/

EPA and U.S. Forest Service Defunding

[13]     https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/trump-2018-budget-cuts-fighting-wildfires-deadly-article-1.3318296

[14]     https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/15/us/politics/budget-epa-state-department-cuts.html

[15]     https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/climate/trump-epa-budget-superfund.html

Update (as of Sunday night, Nov. 18)

[16]     https://www.cbsnews.com/live-news/fires-in-california-camp-woolsey-paradise-wildfire-evacuations-death-toll-map-2018-11-18-latest/