Sometimes I think I must be getting old.
It’s not so much the aches and pains, or sleeping badly, or even the dietary restrictions I use to manage my diabetes. All those are annoying in their own right, but what’s really worse is watching people doing stupid crap that I know is stupid and I know I’ve seen fail before.
The list of these things is long and painful, but I’m not paid by the word so let’s focus on one: The furor over the fires in California.
Now let’s not presume that I’m unsympathetic. A friend of mine — and one of my favorite editors — has apparently lost his house and everything in it thanks to the Paradise fire. But, El Supremo his Excellency the Governor Jerry Brown has pronounced them the “new normal” — and also has pronounced them “the new abnormal,” the combination of which honestly amuses the hell out of me — caused by climate change. Oh, and he blames Trump.
You know whom we should blame? Smokey the Bear. We’ve spent the last century believing it’s our individual responsibility because “only you can stop forest fires,” and we’ve succeeded.
Now, I want you to conduct a little thought experiment: get a nice large bark-on green log. Put it in the fireplace and pile some dry grass around it. (If you don’t have dry grass handy, use some newspaper. Buy a newspaper if you can’t find one, or use one of the free ones.)
Take a match and light the dry grass. In a few minutes, the grass will have burned away, but the log will still be sitting there, possibly a little scorched but essentially unharmed.
Now pile on another batch of real or ersatz dry grass, but then pile on top of that an armful of dry twigs and pinecones; on top of that in turn, add a bunch of deadfall wood – dry saplings, broken branches, all that sort of stuff. Add some split dry logs, small pieces with rough surfaces that have been allowed to dry for a year or so. The technical term for this is “kindling”.
Light the dry grass, and the deadfall and dry split logs will kindle and burn, and the fire will grow hot enough for long enough that even the fresh green log will catch fire and burn merrily.
Fires are part of the natural order, sparked by lightning if nothing else. Forests evolved in a world where Mjolnir started a fire every so often out of pure cussedness, burning out underbrush and deadwood. Some pine trees, in fact, need a fire to distribute their seeds — the cones won’t open until heated. But small fires open up the forest floor, clear out the deadwood, and make room, at least out here in the Rockies, for aspen stands that grow up, die out after a couple of decades, and are replaced with new pines and spruce and fir.
For the last century or so, we’ve been diligently listening to Smokey and stopping forest fires and now we have a whole forest full of piled up brush, dry grass, deadfall, and dead standing trees. Kindling. When a fire does start, it burns hot and it burns long so that even live trees burn in a devastating fire that is almost impossible to control.
There is a solution: instead of uncontrolled fires which become too dangerous as we’ve just seen demonstrated, small controlled burns kept to a manageable size allow the piled up underbrush to be burned out without destroying whole towns. But those controlled burns make smoke, and smoke is pollution, and besides the burned areas are all ugly and stuff.
Before some fool city folk pop up to say “but some of these fires are not forest fires — they’re grass fires neener neener,” I’ll just point out that it’s another verse of the same song. Heavily overgrown scrub brush and grass will burn like a sonofabitch.
In a recent tweet, Trump pointed out that the severity of the fires is due in large part to poor grassland and forest management. Of course, he was being stupid and insensitive and un-thinking and ignorant.
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
A few days later, it also turns out he’s right. KQED and Mother Jones are pointing it out in articles, and local papers are complaining that California is actually cutting funds for fire control. What we got, however, was a few days of “that insensitive clown Trump” before actual thought.
And that’s the thing about getting old. I’m just less willing to deal with the apologetics, the posturing, or to suffer fools gladly or not.
In my continuing effort to understand Trump, I suspect he is in much the same state. Unlike regular politicians, Trump has no mouth filters and no particular ambitions except to prove that he’s a good president — by his own lights. Unlike a real politician, Trump is willing to come out and say “you’re doing it to yourselves, you damn fools.”
And that is probably the worst political sin of all.