All this is from … well, I don’t know exactly. The Bobcat Fire, which has burned more than 30,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest? The El Dorado Fire, better known to the rest of the United States as the gender-reveal party fire? Another fire entirely? There are dozens of wildfires burning in California, Oregon and Washington state. One, in Mendocino National Forest, is now the largest in California history. Portland is experiencing the worst air quality of any major city in the entire world. The sky is so red in San Francisco that the city looks like it’s been transported to Mars. Entire towns in the Pacific Northwest are no more. At least 33 people are dead — including a young boy who died clutching his dog — and the total will likely go higher. All told, more than 4 million acres have burned.
Fire season is an expected part of life in the west, but this is something unprecedented, brought on by droughts and heat waves resulting from rapidly accelerating climate change. Yet the fires aren’t getting the national attention you’d expect for a disaster of this horrific magnitude.
President Trump, who continues to blame the wildfires, as he has in the past, on bad “forest management,” is mostly silent, though he plans to visit California on Monday. For the television news networks, it’s just one among a number of urgent stories. On Twitter, people who live or have lived in the west joke the fires would get more media love if they occurred in New York. No doubt that’s true, but there are other factors at play.
First, the climate-related catastrophes seem all but endless. Last month, a derecho damaged or destroyed half the trees in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hurricane Laura caused billions of dollars in damage to the Louisiana coast and set off a fire at a chemical plant — a disaster within a disaster. And don’t forget the tropical storm that hit the New York City metropolitan area last month, leaving more than a million without power, some for more than a week.
There is only so much disaster we can focus on at a time. It feels almost quaint to think back and remember how outraged so many of us were in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, when Trump delayed desperately needed aid for to hard-hit Puerto Rico for months and bizarrely tossed rolls of paper towels at hurricane victims when he finally bothered to visit the island.
And speaking of the president, his administration is another disaster vacuuming up our attention. There’s the disastrous pandemic response; the constant attacks on women, immigrants and minorities; the millions unemployed; and so on. Remember the missing mail? Wasn’t that a scandal — wait, what, three weeks ago?
Who can focus in all this? Not me, not you. But the Trump administration can. Earlier this summer, it unveiled regulations attempting to take the stuffing out of the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, which is the foundation of almost all subsequent such legislation and regulation. Weakening it will almost certainly make it harder to combat climate change.
That said, Trump is just an accelerant, not the originator of our woes, environmental or otherwise. In my darkest moments, I suspect that expecting American society, which can’t get a grip on so many issues, to suddenly begin dealing with climate change borders on the delusional. But we need to pay attention and begin to force the administration to take action. Whether it’s the flood of a hurricane, the winds of a derecho or the wall of fire in the western part of the United States, our entire way of life is at stake.