SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, California: California is burning. Wildfires are tearing through the US state at an alarming rate and heating up the vote on recalling the embattled governor. Democrat Gavin Newsom's detractors blame him for all of California's ills: From the housing crisis to the march of COVID-19. And the record-breaking fire season - shaping up to be the worst ever - is another stick with which to beat him.
"This is about the failure of government to do the most basic things, like manage our forests," Republican candidate Kevin Kiley said. With hundreds of homes already lost and thousands of people forced to flee encroaching flames, it might seem like a winning strategy. But even those who have seen their property reduced to ashes say the problem is bigger than the 53-year-old politician at California's helm.
"I voted for Newsom and I don't plan to recall him," said Tim Close, who learned of the destruction of his family's cabin near South Lake Tahoe when he saw an AFP photograph of it burning. "I just think that the fires have increased. We're in a drought," Close said. "You can just look over what's happened in the last five or six years. And it seems like you know, every season is getting worse."
Scientists say man-made climate change is making the western United States hotter, drier and more vulnerable to destructive fires. The blazes are a natural part of the forest cycle, but their increased regularity and ferocity is down to the rise in global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Californians are voting on whether to oust Newsom in a recall election prompted by Republicans angered by mask mandates, a high cost of living and sky-rocketing homelessness in the wealthiest and most populous state in the union. The two-part vote asks first if Newsom should be removed. If a majority agree, then whoever gets the most votes out of 46 candidates - regardless of how few votes he or she receives - will take Newsom's place.
But despite Republican claims, the fires are unlikely to play a decisive roll at the ballot box, says Jack Citrin, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. "I don't think there's been much discussion or evidence of this. Obviously, the people who are affected by the fires and who have lost homes and so forth are angry, but then the question really is, whom do they blame?" Citrin said. "It's hard to know, it's the generalized anger that one might feel about this, if one is a victim and forced to evacuate. (But) it doesn't really lead in any direct way... to the governor."
For urban voters the fires are a nuisance, affecting air quality as smoke drifts into the cities. But for those in rural areas, the impacts are huge. As voters return their ballots in the run up to Tuesday's deadline, thousands of firefighters continue to battle huge blazes, like the Caldor Fire that last week emptied out the tourist town of South Lake Tahoe. Further north, the Dixie Fire is already the second biggest blaze in state history, having torched more than 3,800 sq km.
Use of resources
To hold one man responsible for nature's large-scale fury is to willfully ignore the bigger picture, argued The Los Angeles Times. "These crises were years in the making and - let's face it - Newsom inherited them from his Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown. But Newsom had the misfortune to take office just as they reached the boiling point," said a recent editorial.
Newsom has asked Californians to reduce their water consumption, has successfully secured requested federal money, and pumped resources into fire prevention measures, the paper said. "If anything, being visible as a leader in showing compassion, in showing concern, can in a marginal way help him," says Citrin, who believes the last word will be in the hands of Democrats - a largely urban constituency - who will vote more on issues like housing, the pandemic and the cost of living.
Maybe, says Close, the $280 million it has cost to mount the recall election - just 18 months before the end of Newsom's term anyway - could have been used to protect the tinder-dry countryside. "I think it would be better to spend it on, you know, fire prevention, educating people to clear brush away from their homes," he said. - AFP