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Essential Politics: A new group wants to avert the ‘mega-fire crisis’

A firefighter silhouetted against glowing smoke in the woods
Firefighters respond to a structure fire along Riverdale Boulevard in Boulder Creek in 2020.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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I once thought of fire, when harnessed, as a force of good that provides warmth and light. I also thought that when fires got big, they should immediately be put out so they would not harm structures and human life. These assumptions were challenged when I first started working at The Times in 2019. It was here I learned that wildfire is necessary for ecosystems to thrive.

Throughout the 1900s, the federal government’s approach to addressing wildfire was swift and immediate suppression. This well-intentioned policy, however, left an overabundance of fuel on the forest floor that should have long ago burned.

This fuel — twigs, leaves and trees — coupled with climate change has yielded ripe conditions for mega-fires to occur more frequently. This new mega-fire era poses a significant threat to ecosystems, people and property. And the carbon emitted from these large fires is not only limiting the effectiveness of California’s climate plan but also threatening the Biden administration’s climate ambitions.

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Now, a former congressional staffer has helped launch a California-based nonprofit that aims to end the mega-fire crisis within a decade. Is that lofty goal even achievable? How should policies and laws change to better prevent large fires? Can Republicans and Democrats rally around this issue?

Hello, I’m Erin B. Logan. I cover national politics and the Biden-Harris administration for The Times. Today we are going to talk about climate change, federal wildfire policy and D.C. politics.

Trouble solving mega-fires in Washington

Matt Weiner spent over a decade of his life working for California lawmakers in Washington.

Fire had always been top of mind for Weiner but, in the last few years, he noticed it began to take up even more of his time — and for good reason.

Five of the seven largest California wildfires occurred in 2020 alone; 18 of the largest 20 wildfires in the state have occurred in the last two decades.

These were mega-fires, the term for any wildfire that burns more than 100,000 acres, and they changed how Weiner thought about the threat that wildfires pose.

“It really forced me to come to terms with the fact that we have a system that’s not designed to handle fires of this scale and magnitude,” Weiner said. America’s firefighting system is built to address smaller fires that don’t typically cross jurisdictions and thus do not always require intense coordination across states and agencies, he said. (U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore acknowledged last September that the federal response to wildfires must change.)

Weiner was still on the Hill when Democrats were trying to get “Build Back Better,” Biden’s signature agenda, across the finish line, and he was in need of allies to help push for wildfire provisions in the bill.

He was soon confronted with the realization that there was no one — or at least no one solely focused on mega-fires — to call.

The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader in the “whole ecosystem of preventing fires,” Weiner told me. But, he said, that group’s advocacy is far broader, encompassing other environmental issues such as sustainable fishing and conservation.

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“There’s no one organization that’s only focused just on this issue, which if you work in policy is a pretty rare thing to come across,” he said. “I’d been frustrated by that while working in Congress.”

In March, Weiner left his position as the California Democratic congressional delegation‘s executive director to help build an advocacy group called Megafire Action whose expressed purpose is to end the mega-fire crisis in a decade.

“The challenges associated with extreme wildfires in the U.S. West and California, in particular, are complex and urgent,” Dan Porter, forest program director for the Nature Conservancy in California, said in a statement. “A paradigm shift is needed to invest in prevention, where in the past land managers have largely focused on fire suppression, literally adding fuel to the fire. Having more voices and resources to support this shift is critical.”

Are mega-fires preventable?

Megafire Action intends to improve laws that block forest treatment, help create jobs to improve forest resilience and improve upon the science to understand wildfire behavior.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are increasingly aware of the threat posed by mega-fires, Weiner said. The Biden administration has already committed billions of dollars to fighting wildfires. But that money, Weiner said, is a drop in the bucket compared to what will be needed in a decade.

“We just don’t have any more time to waste,” Kate Dargan Marquis, who was previously California‘s state fire marshal and is a current board member of Weiner’s nonprofit, said in an interview.

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“Our watersheds are at risk,” Marquis added. “Our water sources are at risk. And not just our communities, and our forests, but our entire water system is at risk.”

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The view from the campaign trail

— Former President Trump drew more than 6,000 fans for a rally Saturday evening in the industrial northeast Ohio city of Youngstown — and mocked venture capitalist J.D. Vance, his pick in the state’s surprisingly tight U.S. Senate race, in the process, Times writer Freddy Brewster reported. Trump has intervened in dozens of Republican primaries across the country this year and many of the candidates he backed, including Vance, went on to win their party’s nomination. But some Republicans in Washington have questioned whether Trump’s picks, who often have strong appeal to his base, can succeed in November, when they will have to compete for swing voters.

—The list of suspected security breaches at local election offices since the 2020 election keeps growing, with investigations underway in at least three states — Colorado, Georgia and Michigan, the Associated Press reported. The stakes appeared to rise this week with the news of a federal investigation involving a prominent loyalist to Trump who has been promoting voting machine conspiracy theories across the country.

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The view from Washington

— The Department of Justice has asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to block a special master review of classified materials found at former President Trump’s Florida home and to allow the department to continue using the documents as part of its investigation while the third-party arbiter reviews other recovered documents. The department had already appealed U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision to appoint a special master to review more than 11,000 records seized during the Aug. 8 search of the property by the FBI. Friday’s request is narrowly focused on the judge’s decision to have the special master evaluate the approximately 100 classified records found in the search and to prevent the department from using the documents in its ongoing investigation until the review is complete — which could take months. Times writer Sarah D. Wire has more.

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—Since taking office, Biden and his party have delivered on a number of policy promises of deep importance to Latinos, Times writer Eli Stokols reported. But some Latino activists worry voters aren’t aware of all that’s been done, and others worry that the blinkered perspective Biden acknowledged privately has limited Latino representation in his administration. With Hispanic Heritage Month underway and the midterm elections seven weeks away, Biden and aides have launched a robust outreach effort aimed at ensuring this crucial voting bloc appreciates the sum of Democrats’ accomplishments.

—The U.S. Senate does not have to release its full report detailing the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation and detention program following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a federal judge ruled Thursday, Wire reported. District of Columbia District Judge Beryl Howell ruled that the report “does not qualify as a public record subject to the common law right of public access” because although it was part of the committee’s investigation, it was aimed at gathering information and did not make recommendations or propose legislation. Therefore, she said, it falls under the protections of the 1st Amendment‘s speech and debate clause protecting legislators’ speech while crafting legislation.

The view from California

— It will soon be illegal for California employers to let workers’ offsite and outside-of-work marijuana use be a factor in hiring or firing decisions, Times writer Grace Toohey reported. On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that makes California the seventh state in the United States that does not allow employers to discriminate against workers who smoke weed “off the job and away from the workplace.” The law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

—After a dormant summer on the airwaves, Rick Caruso’s mayoral campaign on Thursday reserved $17 million worth of broadcast TV ad time spread over the remaining weeks of the race — a commitment that does not include cable or digital advertising, meaning the spending total will likely grow, Times writer Julia Wick reported. It’s a colossal sum — likely the largest single-day ad reservation ever placed in a local L.A. race — and a level of spending that could help Caruso narrow the double-digit gap in the Nov. 8 general election. The real estate developer is slated to spend about $2.3 million a week on broadcast advertising through the general election, according to media tracking firm AdImpact.

— After several months of waiting, Californians who qualify for the state’s gas price relief program could begin seeing payments in October, Times writer Christian Martinez reported. The $9.5-billion tax refund program will provide one-time payments of up to $1,050 for some families, expected to be sent out between next month and January 2023. Newsom and state lawmakers reached a deal for the refunds in June amid record-setting gas prices and rising costs for other goods.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and send pictures of your adorable furbabies to me at erin.logan@latimes.com.

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