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What Should We Know About Wildfires in California

This year has already broken records

As California enters an already historic and devastating wildfire season, little attention has been given to the issues that can make wildfires bigger, faster, and more dangerous to people and our nation’s treasured wildlands. Here’s a look at what’s behind the occurrence of forest and wildland fires today.

This year has already broken records, with the largest wildfire in the state’s history just one of many fires burning simultaneously through more than 2.5 million acres and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate their homes — all during a global pandemic where air quality and the ability to shelter-in-place are of critical importance to COVID-19 outcomes. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Northern California became the most deadly fire in the state’s recorded history. That same year, destructive fires burned in Southern California – the Woolsey and Hill fires engulfed iconic areas of Malibu and West Hills, leaving dozens dead, hundreds missing, and thousands of structures destroyed.

Some politicians and corporations spread misinformation and false solutions

Dramatic media stories tend to highlight what’s currently happening with firefighting efforts, but little attention is spent looking at the vast number of issues that influence wildfire behavior and how they impact people and our nation’s treasured wildlands.

Worse, some politicians and corporations spread misinformation and false solutions when fires burn in an attempt to capitalize on these emergency situations and push an anti-environmental agenda. Trump and his Department of the Interior have long parroted talking points from a logging industry that is trying to gut environmental safeguards and increase taxpayer subsidized logging on public lands.

The following list is not a specific analysis of current or recent events, but rather a wider look at trends impacting the occurrence of both forest and wildland fires today.

Obama Protects the Arctic Ocean

Building on this momentum, thousands of people called on President Obama to use his legal authority to make the U.S. Arctic Ocean off limits from future oil drilling. In late 2016, Obama took action to permanently protect all of the Chukchi Sea and the vast majority of the Beaufort Sea — as well as a number of biologically important undersea canyons in the Atlantic.This was a big victory for the people-powered climate movement, signalling that the relentless expansion of the oil industry into new areas was finally at an end.But then Trump happened.

The Trump Twist

Trump came into office calling climate change a hoax and giving handouts to dirty energy companies. His plan to open up nearly every U.S. coastline to more oil and gas drilling was extremely unpopular, and in the case of the Arctic Ocean, it outright ignored the fact that Obama had already ruled out future leasing there.

Trump’s new offshore oil plan called for lease sales in the Beaufort Sea starting in 2019 and the Chukchi Sea in 2020. In response, Greenpeace joined with other groups in a lawsuit to challenge the plan in court. Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council led the litigation, representing Greenpeace along with Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, League of Conservation Voters, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society.

The key issue was that when Congress enacted the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), it gave the president authority to withdraw areas from oil and gas leasing, but made no mention of revoking previous withdrawals.

That’s an act that only Congress itself can take. Judge Sharon Gleason agreed with this analysis, and as she stated in her ruling, Obama’s withdrawals “will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress.” The government may appeal this ruling, but for now this is a big victory for the climate.
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