Thursday, August 16News That Matters

California Today: Your Questions About Fires and Climate


California Today

California Today: Your Questions About Fires and Climate

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Flames leap above High Valley Road as the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, burns near Clearlake Oaks.CreditNoah Berger/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Good morning.

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As California firefighters battle historic wildfires across the state, our readers have reached out with questions about the role climate change plays in the intensity and frequency of these blazes. Others have expressed confusion over tweets by President Trump laying the blame on the state’s forestry and water management policies.

The New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman, who covers climate and wrote about this topic, dug into her reporter’s notebook to answer some of your top questions:

What exactly is the role of climate change in these intensifying wildfire seasons? Is it all climate change, or are there other factors as well?

Lisa: I put that question to Michael F. Wehner, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He stressed that there is no question that warming temperatures have led to severe droughts, meaning more dry fuel, as well as more intense heat waves. Those are essentially the conditions that have made for wildfire seasons that start earlier, last longer and affect larger areas.

“To dismiss the role of climate change on these fires is simply incorrect,” said Mr. Wehner, who was a lead author on a chapter of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a series of federal summaries of climate change data. He made the point, as most climate scientists do, that the cause of the wildfires is multifold, like in any complex event.

And this trend promises to continue: According to the National Climate Assessment science report released last year, the number of large forest fires in the Western United States and Alaska is projected to rise as the climate continues to warm.

So did the president capture the causes of the California wildfires accurately?

Lisa: The president’s tweet said that the California wildfires were worsened by “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized.” Virtually every scientist and forest management expert agreed that Mr. Trump’s tweet was scientifically and factually inaccurate.

Mr. Trump’s other admonition that California “must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” raised fewer objections. But, state officials pointed out, California devoted more than $250 million in state funds this year alone on efforts to reduce the risk of wildfires.

How about the president’s point about water policy? How is that related to wildfire management and firefighting? Is there any connection, as the president suggested?

Lisa: Mr. Trump in his tweet referred to the longstanding dispute between California farmers and environmentalists over the allocation of the state’s precious water resources. Both sides want more and Mr. Trump has embraced the arguments of the agriculture community.

But William Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California, Berkeley said leaving less water for fish would have no impact on amount available for fighting fires. That water comes from local streams and rivers, where water-dropping helicopters drop their buckets. Neither he nor other scientists could point to a scenario in which California’s environmental laws have prevented or curbed the use of water to fight wildfires.

President Trump, said Mr. Stewart, “conflates it all in a way that’s about as nonsensical as I’ve ever seen.”

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California Online

(Please note: We regularly highlight articles on news sites that have limited access for nonsubscribers.)

• The Mendocino Complex Fire is now the largest in the state’s history. [The New York Times]

• Explaining the Mendocino Complex fires, which are two separate fires and have not merged. [The Mendocino Voice]

• The University of Southern California on Tuesday appointed the retired aerospace executive Wanda Austin to temporarily run the university while the board finds a permanent replacement for the outgoing president C.L. Max Nikias. [The New York Times]

• Nearly 300,000 people in California work in industries that could be affected by Chinese tariffs. [The Fresno Bee]

• Tech companies often struggle with their roles as the arbiters of speech and leave false information, upset users and confusing decisions in their wake. [The New York Times]

• The National Weather Service released a map showing how smoke from California’s wildfires is spreading across the west. [The East Bay Times]

• California’s clean-air regulator blasted a Trump administration plan to relax car pollution rules, calling it “contrary to the facts and the law.” [The New York Times]

• President Trump’s tweet about California fires comes at the same time his administration is seeking to expand logging. [The Los Angeles Times]

• Data by insurance providers shows which California counties have the highest concentration of wildfire risk to homes. [The Sacramento Bee]

• A writer explores the “crisis of liberalism” he found on Berkeley’s campus. [National Review]

• Accusations of slogan stealing take center stage in California’s 10th Congressional District. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

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Josh Harder, a candidate in the 10th Congressional District, and his fiancée at a campaign event in the Central Valley of California.CreditAlpana Aras-King for The New York Times

• The air quality in the Central Valley due to surrounding wildfires has hit hazardous levels. [The Fresno Bee]

• Have you ever wondered how fires are named? An explainer. [The New York Times]

And Finally …

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LeBron James in 2010 during his bicycling fund-raiser in Akron, Ohio, where he grew up.CreditPhil Long/Associated Press

When news broke last month that LeBron James would move to Los Angeles to join the Lakers, it wasn’t just Angeleno sports fans who were elated; cyclists across the city were delighted that Mr. James, a famous bike enthusiast, could help bring attention to the city’s lackluster bike safety infrastructure.

“This could mean a lot to the cycling community. Anybody who has spoken as eloquently as LeBron James about what a bike has meant to him in his life, I think that potential and that platform is a huge deal,” said Tamika Butler, a longtime cycling activist in Los Angeles.

Mr. James has evangelized about the freedom and positive opportunities that bicycles provide children; the school for at-risk children that Mr. James created in Akron through his family foundation promises to give each new student a bike.

Because Mr. James has been known to ride his bike to games in the past, there was speculation over whether he would do so in Los Angeles, where pedestrians and cyclists are frequent victims of hit-and-run collisions. One story in The Los Angeles Times had a headline that generated cheers and jeers, “Dear Los Angeles: LeBron James is an avid cyclist. Please don’t run him over.”

That excitement was kicked up again over the weekend when The Wall Street Journal published an interview with Mr. James, who sounded upbeat about the potential for cycling in and around the city.

“I’ve seen a few bike paths around Los Angeles,” he told The Journal. “I know Santa Monica has a great bike path down there on the beach. I’m looking forward to that.”

As for commuting to work: “That would be a hump,” he said.

Ms. Butler said that communities in Los Angeles that are heavily minority or low-income have struggled with a lack of safe biking infrastructure; those areas tend to be places where people are particularly reliant on non-motor transportation because they cannot afford cars.

Mr. James, she said, could “shine a light” on these issues.

“Does he have the platform to get folks to finally listen? I hope so. And I hope that folks are also open to realizing that there have been folks in L.A. saying a lot of the same things for a long time,” she said. “And I think it would be amazing if some of those advocates could ride with him.”

California Today goes live at 6 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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