with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The historically destructive wildfires on the West Coast are finally bursting into the race between President Trump and Joe Biden – presenting an urgent crisis that's impossible to ignore even amidst a once-in-a-generation pandemic and economic recession. 

With more than two dozen major fires in California alone last week during an unprecedented wildfire season, they're no longer an afterthought for campaigns that – seven weeks from Election Day – would typically be hyper-focused on engaging voters in swing states such as Florida, Michigan and Ohio rather than addressing disasters in California, Oregon and Washington, three states solidly in the Democratic column. 

Both candidates are set to deliver remarks on the fires at competing events Monday afternoon. 

For Trump, the crisis is a chance to marshal federal powers to provide aid to people during a race in which his self-inflicted wounds have made it hard for him to leverage the advantages of incumbency.  

For Biden, the fires are an opportunity to accuse his opponent of not doing enough to help battle the blazes – or to curb the rise in global temperature that climate scientists say is fueling the fires, an issue Biden has made central to his candidacy. 

Trump is finally talking about the fires after weeks of mostly silence. 

Trump scheduled a trip to McClellan Park near Sacramento to be briefed by local and federal officials after weathering criticism for not publicly addressing the fires.

For days as flames consumed more than 3 million acres of land in California, neither the president nor his press secretary mentioned the disaster unfolding on the other side of the country, according to my colleague Amber Phillips

Finally, on Friday, Trump broke his silence to thank firefighters and other first responders for trying to contain the blazes and to trumpet the firefighting grants given to California and other Western states.

As recently as Friday, the White House was saying that flying the president into an area still burning “would not be wise” before an about-face over the weekend. 

Trump has a history of singling out California — and calling out Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) by name — to criticize what he regards as the state’s poor forest management. His administration has sought to make it easier to clear underbrush to reduce the fire risk.

Though decades of fire suppression policies have aggravated conditions and left more material to burn, most of California’s forests are managed by the federal government. 

Perhaps sensing the gravity of destruction out West, Trump’s response to the latest fires has been less provocative. Still, at a rally in Minden, Nev., on Saturday, Trump asked his fans to “remember the words — very simple — ‘forest management,’” while offering sympathy to the fire victims.

At a rally in Minden, Nev., on Sept. 12, President Trump said wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington state were "dangerous" and "rapidly spreading." (The Washington Post)

Behind the scenes, Trump has deployed more than 26,000 federal personnel and 230 helicopters out West to fight the fires, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere. Instead of tagging Newsom in a Twitter rant, as he did for another wave of fires in 2019, Trump has spoken with Newsom by phone since mid-August. 

Biden is using the fires to highlight Trump's refusal to accept the scientific reality of human-caused climate change. 

The former vice president is scheduled to deliver an address from Delaware in which he will connect the wildfires to rising temperatures. “He will discuss how extreme weather events are both caused by & underscore the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis,” spokesman Matt Hill tweeted.

In a statement over the weekend, Biden said the Western wildfires may be the beginning of an “unending barrage of tragedies” should the world not curb climate-warming emissions. A major plank of his campaign pitch is to eliminate carbon pollution from the power sector over the next 15 years. 

“The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life,” Biden said. “President Trump can try to deny that reality, but the facts are undeniable.”

Biden has an asset in his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), to draw attention to the fires in her home state.

During an online reception with donors in Chicago on Thursday, Harris compared her and Bidens trust in scientists with Trumps, noting that her mother was a biologist. “So, when I say to you that there is a contrast, we know that that is the case on many levels.” Harris is set to go back to California on Monday ahead of meeting with emergency service personnel. 

“California burns, and storms grow stronger off our coasts,” the senator from California added. “The climate crisis is impossible to ignore.”

The Biden campaign is drawing a contrast with Trump, who even as he appears more willing to talk about the wildfires is not connecting to climate change. By drying out vegetation, rising temperatures from human activity are causing wildfires in the West to grow bigger and act in more unpredictable ways, wildfire scientists say. 

“Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn't real,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), a Biden supporter, said on CNN's “State of the Union” on Sunday. “And it seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation.”

More on the West Coast wildfires

Wildfires make California residents wonder: “Do we really want to live here?” 

“California has become a warming, burning, epidemic-challenged and expensive state, with many who live in sophisticated cities, idyllic oceanfront towns and windblown mountain communities thinking hard about the viability of a place they have called home forever,” my colleagues Heather Kelly, Reed Albergotti, Brady Dennis and Scott Wilson write. “For the first time in a decade, more people left California last year for other states than arrived.”

They add: “Monica Gupta Mehta and her husband, an entrepreneur, have been through tech busts and booms, earthquakes, wildfire seasons and power outages. But it was not until the skies darkened and cast an unsettling orange light on their Palo Alto home earlier this week that they ever considered moving their family of five somewhere else.” 

“For the first time in 20-something years, the thought crossed our minds: Do we really want to live here?” Mehta, who is starting an education tech company, told my colleagues. “Yesterday felt so apocalyptic.” 

A rapidly changing climate is one of several reasons that some Californians are thinking of leaving the state, which has attracted people to its natural beauty. The climate has increasingly shifted to extremes of “soaking wet seasons followed suddenly by sharp, dry heat and wind” and this year, no region has been spared from fire.

Other Californians say that they were already thinking of leaving for economic reasons. A poll conducted last year by the University of California at Berkeley found that more than half of Californian voters had given “serious” or “some” consideration to leaving the state because of the high cost of housing, heavy taxation or political culture.

Rescue crews search for missing from areas hit by wildfires.

As the fires force tens of thousands to flee, many are in an agonizing wait to find out whether their friends and family survived, my colleagues Samantha Schmidt, Hannah Knowles, and Mark Berman write.

An estimated 500,000 people in Oregon were facing the threat of wildfires that had engulfed over a million acres by Sept. 12. (The Washington Post)

On Friday, Oregon officials said they were preparing for a “mass fatality incident.” Fires in neighboring California have been linked to at least 22 deaths so far. 

Search-and-rescue missions have been hampered by the ongoing fires, although there was some progress over the weekend as strong winds slowed. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that most of the people reported missing from the fire in the Ashland area of Oregon had been accounted for, but more people are missing from other fires.

Plumes of smoke have soared up to 10 miles high, above the cruising altitude of commercial jets.

The behavior of California’s wildfires this year is “virtually unprecedented in scope and scale,” my colleague Matthew Cappucci writes.

A day after the Creek Fire started in the Sierra Nevada mountains, its smoke plume soared over 55,000 feet. These plumes, driven in part by record heat, can spark thunderstorms and lightning, which in turn can lead to more fires.

Neil Lareau, a professor of atmospheric sciences in the Department of Physics at the University of Nevada at Reno, told The Post that it was the highest plume he had ever seen.

“It’s about a solid 10,000 feet higher than we’re typically seeing with the highest of these plumes,” Lareau said.

These smoke plumes may play a role in another strange weather phenomenon: Before 2020, only a few fires had ever produced documented tornadoes, but this year researchers are seeing fire tornadoes every week or two.

Power plays

NOAA hires a professor who doubts the seriousness of climate change.

“The Trump administration has tapped David Legates, an academic who has long questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is causing global warming, to help run the agency that produces much of the climate research funded by the U.S. government,” Freedman and Jason Samenow report.

Legates, a University of Delaware professor, was hired as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction, a position that will put him in a senior leadership role at the agency. He was previously forced out of his role as Delaware’s climatologist because of his controversial views on climate science. 

Legates has a long history of casting doubt on science that shows humans driving an unprecedented change in the world’s climate. He is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, funded in part by the fossil fuel industry, that has pushed science downplaying the negative impact of climate change.

He was the lead author of a non-peer-reviewed rebuttal to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report warning of severe consequences from climate change. The work, funded by the Heartland Institute, claimed that “nearly all the impacts of fossil fuel use on human well-being are net positive (benefits minus costs), near zero (no net benefit or cost), or are simply unknown.

Thermometer

Tropical storm Sally is expected to become a hurricane and bring flooding to the Gulf Coast.

“After deluging South Florida and the Florida Keys, Tropical Storm Sally is strengthening and forecast to become a powerful hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico,” Cappucci and Samenow report. “When it slugs ashore Monday night into Tuesday, the storm is predicted to unleash a prolonged and dangerous assault from wind and water in southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, including New Orleans.”

The National Hurricane Center has warned that Sally may intensify into a Category 2 or stronger storm before making landfall and could cause a “dangerous and life threatening” surge in water levels over normally dry land along the coast.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the greater New Orleans metro area, and officials have ordered a mandatory evacuation for areas outside the protection of the city’s levee system.

Earth could warm to levels not seen for tens of millions of years.

“Scientists just completed one of the most comprehensive investigations of Earth’s climate history — and the findings aren’t favorable,” E&E News reports. “They found that the planet could eventually warm to levels it hasn’t reached in at least 34 million years.”

The research, published Thursday in the journal Science, used chemical analyses of ancient sediments, drilled from the ocean bottom, to reconstruct earth’s climate going back 66 million years, around the time that a mass extinction killed off the dinosaurs.

The Earth has passed through various climate stages known as warhmouse, hothouse, coolhouse and icehouse states. The hottest phases, more than 50 million years ago, were far hotter than the climate today, but the temperature built up over millions of years and long before humans existed.

The speed of warming from human-driven climate change is almost unprecedented. 

“If you look at the worst-case scenario [by 2300], the change in mean global temperature is larger than most of the natural variability going back over the last 66 million years related to changes in the Earth’s orbit,” Jim Zachos, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a co-author of the study, told E&E News.

Oil check

North Dakota is reeling from the dual blows of spiking coronavirus cases and falling oil prices.

“A recent surge in coronavirus cases is rekindling economic anxieties in North Dakota, where wildly fluctuating oil prices and recent drops in production threaten to leave the state’s finances in fresh disarray,” my colleague Tony Romm reports.

North Dakota officials have estimated that taxes from oil revenue will come in $145 million short of the amount expected. Approximately 80 percent of North Dakota’s drilling rigs remain offline, and thousands of workers are out of jobs. Data shows that local mining and related jobs also have shed 35 percent of their workers compared with last year.

“With global travel in free fall — and even domestic trips this past Labor Day weekend significantly scaled back — there’s been declining demand for a natural resource that previously generated jobs, tax revenue and an estimated $2.4 billion in gross domestic product for the state, according to federal data,” Romm writes.

In some ways, North Dakota may be better prepared to weather the downturn compared with some other states. It has better unemployment rates and stronger financial reserves by comparison, but the dual crises will strain the state’s capacities and officials anticipate cuts in public services.

Pollution and covid-19

New research links covid-19 outcomes to hazardous air pollutants.

“The type of pollution emitted by many chemical plants in Louisiana's industrial corridor is correlated with increased coronavirus deaths,” ProPublica writes. The finding comes from new peer-reviewed research from the State University of New York (SUNY) and ProPublica.

The research published Friday in the journal Environmental Research Letters found a correlation between levels of hazardous air pollutants and the coronavirus death rate across 3,100 counties in the United States.

Hazardous air pollutants are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as chemicals likely to cause cancer or other serious health problems. They are emitted by chemical plants in Louisianas industrial corridor, which could explain a high death rate from the virus in this area, ProPublica reports.

The type of pollutants measured in the study are distinct from, but frequently found along with, particulate air pollution, which has been the subject of earlier research that also found a link between pollution and worse covid-19 outcomes. Some of these earlier studies, however, were not peer-reviewed and have faced pushback from the EPA, as well as from some scientists who objected to the lack of formal review and questioned whether it was possible to draw a strong link without individualized health data.