AP File Photo
Juliann Ashcraft the wife of Andrew Ashcraft, who was killed battling the fire in Yarnell Hill, Ariz., hugs Andrew’s father, Tom Ashcraft, in front of Prescott Fire Station on July 1. Nineteen firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire.
Nineteen courageous firefighters died on Sunday, June 30, in a raging wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz. Officials responded immediately by launching an investigation.
Doubtless many factors caused the tragedy. But there are two prime suspects lurking in the shadows that will likely go uncharged.
In a very real sense, these young men were victims of climate change and the U.S. government’s gross negligence in failing to respond to its predicted devastating impacts.
Review the evidence and judge: The West is gripped by an epic decade-long drought. Fifty-seven percent of its area is currently in severe drought; 2012 was as bad.
No surprise. In 2004, University of California climate scientists first predicted that disappearing Arctic ice would alter North American storm tracks, causing severe drought in the American West. But the U.S. government did little to prepare.
With drought has come brutal heat. Record triple-digit temperatures scorched the West in June, intensifying the Yarnell fire. NASA scientist James Hansen tells us that the chances of extremely hot summers worldwide have soared from 1 in 300 between 1951 and 1980 to nearly 1 in 10 between 1981 and 2010. Meanwhile the 12 hottest years recorded in America all came in the last 15 years. But still Congress won’t cut carbon emissions.
Epic Western drought and heat produce mega-wildfires. California has already battled 2,000 blazes this year — 90 percent above average. This is no fluke: Last year U.S. wildfires incinerated 9.2 million acres, an area predicted to double or even quadruple by 2050 as the world warms — forecasts made and ignored by our own government. Climate change has also lengthened annual fire seasons by two months over the last 40 years.
While America burns, Congress does worse than nothing — it demolishes our climate change adaptation and response capabilities. This year, the fire service is fighting a horrific fire season $115 million, 500 firefighters, and 50 fire trucks short of normal — cuts mandated by the congressional sequester.
Evidence is strong that today’s climate change-driven wildfires also erupt faster, are more erratic, hotter, and deadlier. Firefighters report that “they are facing more extreme fire behavior than they have witnessed in their lifetimes,” said scientist Michael Medler, testifying to Congress in 2007. “We are experiencing weather phenomena that is unprecedented in the historic record” — conditions ideal for mega-fires.
The most recent federal response: $1 billion in sequester cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, which aids victims and reimburses state and local governments for firefighting costs.
Climate change is a national security emergency, but the federal government abdicates its responsibility to safeguard citizens and property. Instead it seems hell-bent on sabotaging our ability to respond to escalating drought, deluge and heat waves.
Federal cuts now prevent the repair of thousands of aging U.S. dams, levees, and dikes, as well as decaying bridges, roads and culverts stressed by mega-storms and floods. Weather disaster protections for nuclear plants, airports, fire/police command centers, and other vital infrastructure are lacking. Mega-drought-stressed reservoirs put drinking water and hydropower at risk.
The feds have even failed to secure the vital weather satellite network. Incompetence will shortly cause a 17-to-53-month gap in comprehensive weather satellite coverage. “Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property and our nation’s critical infrastructures in danger,” impacting “the health and safety of the U.S. population and economy,” says a 2013 Government Accountability Office study.
The attacks of 9/11 drew an immediate government response. Attacks by climate change are now killing firefighters, destroying homes and businesses, and doing significant economic harm. This enemy will not go away. It grows stronger the longer it is ignored.
But the federal response has been denial, delay, and cuts to emergency services and infrastructure protections. So far, Obama’s words about climate have been mostly that: empty words.
Americans must demand a call to arms against climate change and especially against the government’s failure to prepare and adapt. We need to do this for our families, communities, the nation, and especially the children who will live with our failure to act.
It is good to mourn the brave firefighters who died keeping us safe. Better still to take action to prevent future harm.
Glenn Scherer is senior editor for Blue Ridge Press. He lives in Hardwick.MORE IN Perspective
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