The Cleanest Line


Yosemite Valley moments before rangers were forced to evacuate the park due to the Ferguson fire. Photo: Eric Bissell
Yosemite Valley moments before rangers were forced to evacuate the park due to the Ferguson fire. Photo: Eric Bissell

Endless Fire Season

By Austin Murphy   |   Oct 29, 2018 October 29, 2018

On a Wednesday in August, I drove three hours from the Bay Area to Mariposa, California, on the doorstep of Yosemite National Park. For me, this is typically a drive of mounting anticipation—of stoke. Cresting Altamont Pass on Interstate 580, crossing the Central Valley, what I felt instead was dread. The sky, clotted with smoke from numerous wildfires, cast a dingy, dystopian pall. Wending my way up the parched foothills, I saw handmade signs from residents offering thanks to first responders who’d saved their homes. One said, simply: There are no words.

My destination was a roundtable of victims of the Ferguson Fire, which started July 13, in the Sierra National Forest, and took five weeks to contain. Many of those attending had also been forced to evacuate during last year’s Detwiler Fire. The home where the meeting was held had come available, the owner Kim Monson said, because her VRBO renters had canceled.

“I’ve been out of business for two weeks,” reported Ken Boche, who runs the well-reviewed Yosemite Close Up Tours. In addition to costing $118.5 million to suppress, the Ferguson Fire caused at least $50 million in economic losses. “This is our bread-and-butter season,” Boche added, “but we’re not making any bread.”

On the receiving end of the group’s frustrations sat a nodding, chipper, 36-year-old. Jessica Morse has been crisscrossing California for more than a year, putting tens of thousands of miles on her 2006 Mazda3 hatchback. Raised in the foothills of the Sierras, Morse holds a degree from Princeton, worked for USAID in Iraq and has hiked 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She is running for Congress in California’s Fourth District, in part to prevent the state’s rapidly expanding wildfire season from becoming a year-round ordeal. To win, she’ll have to un-seat Tom McClintock, 62, who’s held the seat since 2009. They’re poles apart on most matters: tax policy, water policy, healthcare—the role of government in our daily lives.

But the issue that moved me to meet the challenger was the same one that made the drive a tad depressing: California was on fire.

McClintock is a climate change denier and likes to claim that environmentalists and environmental regulations are the real problem. He favors large-scale timber sales on public lands, and clear-cuts with little to no government supervision.

Morse accepts that climate change is a factor in the bigger, more frequent and more destructive fires, and argues that clear-cutting makes them worse. To keep mega-fires from becoming a year-round threat, she advocates for alternative, proven approaches to fire prevention. And so I was curious: could her plans to reduce fire danger make a difference with voters?

* * * * *

Vast and stunning, California’s 4th Congressional District (CA-04) runs along the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountains, from Truckee to the Giant Sequoia National Monument. It includes three national forests, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Like McClintock, I don’t live in CA-04, although I do spend as much time there as possible, whether it’s backpacking, snowboarding, road biking or simply feigning productivity at Truckee’s Coffeebar.

McClintock’s stewardship of the natural resources in his district begs for air quotes. While representing what is arguably the most spectacular congressional district in the country, he’s earned a zero rating, out of 100, from the League of Conservation Voters, and was dubbed one of Change.org’s top 14 “Public Lands Enemies.” He’s fond of attaching riders to bills for the purpose of hamstringing and reversing environmental protections, the better to clear-cut forests. Among bills he’s co-sponsored is H.R. 1526, which would increase clear-cutting, while undercutting the public’s ability to contest ruinous logging.

Charles and David Koch, the timber industry and various petrochemical firms have given money to McClintock, who has represented CA-04 for a decade, and coasted to victory in his last four races. Morse, however, is making this one close.

An avid outdoorswoman, a hunter and angler, she embarked on a two-part hike of the PCT in 2015, in part to honor her mother, while she was in India working for the Defense Department. While making her way “from one point of grandeur to the next,” she reflected on how she might make Mom proud. “And that was the first time I thought about serving our community in this way, stepping up and running for office.”

Morse is a fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors crossed the Sierras in covered wagons. Packing a pistol, her great-great-grandmother worked the telegraph booth at Donner Pass. Relentlessly cheerful, she’s not above hammering McClintock as a carpetbagger and a corporate tool.

I first met Morse a month before the roundtable, in California’s gold country, where she introduced herself to constituents at the Mother Lode Fair in Sonora. In the shadow of the Ferris wheel, by the Cook’s Racing Pigs Bacon Barn, I eavesdropped while she engaged a local logger, whose exports of “beetle-kill” timber had recently been shut down, due to tariffs. (Abetted by climate change, bark beetles have killed some 129 million trees in California since 2010.)

As the candidate chatted up a family at a picnic table—“I’ve actually seen about four bears,” a towheaded eight-year-old shared with her—I got a handle on how much work Morse has in front of her; especially as I talked with a thirtysomething local, a contractor in camo shorts who took pulls on a can of beer and watched Morse mingle

“She Republican?” he asked.

“She’s a centrist,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“A pretty conservative Democrat.”

“Well, I guess that’s better than being a full-on liberal Democrat. Cause those don’t really fly around here … We get a lot of money coming up from the [Central] Valley, the Bay Area. People come up here, we don’t really care for their thoughts and their ways. They ruin our hunting. They ruin our logging. They try to ruin our way of life.”

Next, I watched Morse approach a quartet of beefy young men, two of them sporting T-shirts with the name of their four-wheeling club. “I have a crazy idea, and I want it to work,” she said after introducing herself. “I want to get people with Jeeps and ATVs, have them go to areas where we need firebreaks, and have them tear those areas up. I think it’d be awesome.”

She made it a point to greet the sixtysomething man in the Operation Iraqi Freedom ball cap—they discover they were in Baghdad at the same time—and a single mom who has been living in a women’s shelter with her kids for more than a year. After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics at Principia, just north of St. Louis, Morse got her master’s at Princeton, focusing on nuclear non-proliferation. She held her own at the State Department. Yet, she was able to connect with most everyone I saw her speak to at the county fair.

“I grew up here,” she replied, when I made that observation. “These are my people. I get it.”

* * * * *

A month later, she was listening patiently in the dining room at Kim Monson’s home in Ponderosa Basin, outside of Mariposa. Some there had had it.

A man in his 70s shared that, because of the poor air quality and his advancing years, he no longer has the ability to maintain “defensible space” around his property. “I can’t keep my place safe,” he lamented. “We’re out of here.” He and his wife were moving to a condo in Fresno.

Others spoke of living in a constant state of worry about getting family members and livestock out of harm’s way. Those problems paled when one woman, fighting back tears, shared her devastation over the death of Braden Varney, a heavy equipment operator with Cal Fire, whom many people in the room had known. He died battling the Ferguson Fire on July 14. Killed when his bulldozer tumbled 220 feet off a treacherous back-country fire road, Varney left behind a wife and two young children.

People shared their accounts of first responders watering gardens and feeding chickens that belong to those forced out of their homes, of hoteliers offering free lodging to evacuees, of strangers helping strangers. It’s a beautiful thing, seeing the community come together “in such a profound way,” said Morse, pivoting to one of her campaign messages: “It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

“This community is in emergency mode all the time now,” she went on. “We are in survival mode. We’ve got to get ourselves to a point where our forests are not a threat to us anymore, where we’re thriving, rather than surviving.” With emphasis, she added: “Policy matters.”

Her opponent’s voting record is part of California’s wildfire problem, Morse believes. McClintock has accused the U.S. Forest Service of neglecting its forests, she notes, but he has been a reliable no-show when it comes time to adequately funding the Service. That neglect has hurt the USFS’s ability to reduce the dead and dying timber that fuel more intense wildfires.

“We need to give our firefighters all the best resources and tools,” Morse told me after the convocation broke up, “but one of the best things we can give them is a solid investment in fuel reduction. The forest needs to be thinned back to its natural, healthy density.”

McClintock’s approach, she explained, has been to blame environmental regulations for the buildup of fuels (“a false narrative”), and then to make a difficult situation worse by allowing logging companies to clear-cut.

“That’s a terrible idea,” says Morse. Clear-cutting “kills off the old growth, which can cause erosion, and have huge ramifications for the watershed. Even if they clear-cut and back plant,” she goes on, “the forest grows back overly dense, and, as a result, burns more quickly.”

What’s needed, she says, is a “patchwork” of forward-thinking solutions: controlled burns, “forest mastication” and, yes, logging—but not vast clear-cuts with no government supervision, as McClintock longs to see. She’s talking about the kind of prescribed harvesting of timber practiced by her brother-in-law on the Morse family’s 200-acre spread in Gold Run, at the western edge of the Eldorado National Forest.

It’s not as if these proactive ideas haven’t occurred to the Forest Service. The problem is, after using their budgets to put out those fires, they have insufficient funds for prevention projects. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s current Secretary of Agriculture, has acknowledged how self-defeating this can be. In the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which will take effect in 2020, there’s additional funding for wildfire suppression. Who could be against such needed relief? Tom McClintock. He voted no on that bill.

In CA-04, the candidates’ vastly different approaches to solving the wildfire crisis speak to their general views on natural resources. Morse sees them as something to conserve; the incumbent, as something to exploit. McClintock has been trying for years to strip the Merced River, which flows through Yosemite, of its designation as one of the country’s National Wild and Scenic Rivers—so work can begin on a dam. As one wiseacre sitting around Monson’s table opined, “This guy would put a McDonald’s on Half Dome, if he could.”

* * * * *

On my way home, driving down Main Street in a town called Denair, I slowed to read a sign bolted to a boarded-up storefront: Stanislaus County For The State of Jefferson. That sign is a vestige of earlier efforts by some conservative California counties to secede from the Golden State.

Doomed though they were to failure, those movements reflect a mistrust of “liberal elites” in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They also help explain how a politician like McClintock can sail to reelection every other year. Trump carried the district by 14 points in 2016.

“[McClintock]’s staunchly anti-government—other than the fact that he’s been drawing a government salary his entire adult life,” says Les Francis, a resident of CA-04, and a former deputy chief of staff to President Jimmy Carter. “But then, you can’t expect a guy to be too pure.”

Morse is careful not to sound like she’s for more government, but she insists that the Feds can do more for CA-04. For starters, and unlike her opponent, she’s willing to acknowledge that human activity is driving up the average temperature—a major factor in the length of fire season and severity of the fires.

The question isn’t if global warming is exacerbating forest fires. It’s to what extent.

By studying an array of aridity metrics in forests in the western United States and factoring in an average temperature rise of up to 2 ½ degrees, the climatologists John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho and Park Williams of Columbia University found that man-made climate change “contributed around 40 to 50 percent of the burned [forest] area we’ve seen in the past 30 to 40 years,” says Abatzoglou. Since 2000, they also concluded, global warming has resulted in the expansion of peak fire season by an average of nine days. Every year. While the study’s data ended in 2015, says Abatzoglou, “the last three years have continued that trend.”

McClintock has a way of disregarding data that conflicts with his doctrine. “He believes, basically, that government shouldn’t get involved,” Morse says. (McClintock did not respond to requests for comment).

As the race enters its homestretch, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report still had the district pegged as “likely Republican.” And there was Morse, back in Sonora, a part of the district that tends to tilt to the right. They ruin our hunting … they ruin our logging.

Sporting a nametag carved from beetle-kill wood, Morse was ebullient as she celebrated with supporters the opening of her third campaign office. She urged volunteers to speak to people in the community not as Democrats or Republicans.

Appearing to lean slightly on the king’s pep talk to the troops from Shakespeare’s Henry V, she assured those gathered before her that, decades hence, their grandchildren would hold them in high esteem for answering “the call” and helping “heal our country.”

“They’ll say you recognized the danger and saw an opportunity to change,” she predicted. “People talk about a blue wave. It’s really a rising tide. When we talk to our neighbors, we don’t care about the color [red or blue]. It’s about finding solutions to problems that impact all of us.”

Democracy requires showing up.

The most important thing we can do for the environment right now is to elect leaders who will moderate Trump’s rollbacks of regulations that keep millions of Americans healthy, wildlife protected, and our public lands and water secure. We don’t have two (more) years to lose.

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