SHAVER LAKE, CA - SEPTEMBER 06: Firefighter Ricardo Gomez, of a Cal Fire engine from Bradley, takes part in conducting a back burn operation along CA-168 during the Creek Fire as it approaches the Shaver Lake Marina on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 in Shaver Lake, CA.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Coming face to face with California's wildfires
04:50 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

It was dawn on Friday, and all night scalding winds had been blowing. Our kids were sleeping on the floor downstairs to stay cool. We don’t have AC, and until recently, in the Bay Area, we never needed it. Now, after four years of devastating early fall heat waves, high winds and worsening fires, I realize it’s instinctive to keep the kids close on nights like this. We know full well what sweating through a hot windy October night means: Red flag warnings, constant vigilance, waking up to check air quality for signs of smoke. It means keeping an eye on the bag packed by the door.

Tess Taylor

This is just the reality of fire season in California. This year we’ve already been hobbled by a month of erratic smoke days. Our state has lost towns, people, wineries, farms. In our home, we’ve already consoled and supported friends losing homes, seen business grinding to a halt as people evacuate. And we know that even those who have not suffered the ultimate losses have suffered mightily. Parents across the state have tried to keep children at home during the pandemic without even being able to offer the small necessary balm of good air. Kids are suffering increased risk for lifetimes of asthma. And after a month of suffocating smoke earlier this fall, my own family abruptly fled the smoke for over a week because ash had been falling for weeks and locking the kids indoors day after day.

So, at 6am, when my husband woke me and said: “Good news, no fires yet today,” I was relieved. Not yet. Not today. It is good news.

It’s hard to know what to call the other news we woke up to Friday morning: that on Thursday, the Trump administration had, in what seemed to be a colossal act of pettiness and cruelty, rejected California’s request for a presidential major disaster declaration in the wildfires that have killed 31 people and destroyed more than 92,000 structures. The White House said Thursday that California’s request was rejected because it was “not supported by relevant data.”

It’s a staggering statement, and it’s no less staggering now that the President seems to have reversed course. On Friday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom released a statement that President Donald Trump had approved California’s request, only one day after the administration initially rejected it.

White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere told CNN, “The governor and (House Minority Leader Kevin) McCarthy spoke and presented a convincing case and additional on-the-ground perspective for reconsideration leading the President to approve the declaration.”

“Perspective for reconsideration?” The craven fickleness here appears to be just the latest crass power play by a callow President and administration that make clear they are willing to politicize even disaster relief.

So let’s recap: The state of California has, this season alone, suffered four of its five largest wildfires in modern history. Since January, more than 8,000 wildfires have burned over 4.1 million acres in California, according to the state agency Cal Fire. Thirty-one people have died. In the New York Times, Gavin Newsom estimated that infrastructure damage estimates from the fires approaches $230 million, noting that “recovery efforts remain beyond the state’s capabilities.”

Newsom’s language is the language of a governor appealing to a President on behalf of a suffering state and a damaged region. It’s the language of a local politician asking for help from a federal government which should supposedly stand ready to provide aid to citizens facing duress from natural or man-made disasters. This kind of request historically has had little to do with any kind of partisan politics: Whatever our deep disagreements as a country, we have attempted to behave, in the face of disasters, with our eye to the common good. Despite our deep disagreements, there has been some grace in this. We do not hold hostage the lives of citizens struck by disaster. Or we did not used to.

I am glad for my fellow Californians that the President approved the declaration. That it was ever a question remains a travesty.

And in an era when it feels hard to find new rage or new grief, here is a new sad level of deep fracture. Here is a new loss to any idea of sharing citizenship and civic space. There is so little we seem to agree on as a country any more: Whether to have a post office, whether to wear masks, whether Covid-19 is really that dangerous. We seem to be willing to disagree deeply about these things before even talking about whether we need health care, a social safety net, programs for environmental, economic and cultural repair. Our proliferating arguments, and the ensuing stagnancies they foster, are by now legion. But this would-be abandonment of an entire state is a different, shameful low. It is the loss of yet another norm, or common island. It is not surprising: This administration does not actually seem able to think in terms of common life or public good.

I don’t know about you, but someday I want to live in a country again – a country which has a robust public sector that takes pride in caring for its citizens, nurturing its lands, helping its small communities and its cities, supporting its farms and its arts, in fostering peace and bringing people into community. I would be happy to live in a country where we deeply disagree but also care for and respect one another. Right now, I live in a state where suffering Americans have become pawns instead of citizens. Right now, I live in a scorched state, at the caprice of a scorched-earth politician who seems to delight in sowing chaos and discord.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    It’s not a tremendous surprise that so many voters in California do not see eye to eye with President Trump. We know that the temperature is rising. We see our forests are drying out. We are living through harrowing times and we are in constant danger. We are already being ravaged by climate change, and we need leaders who can plan real strategies for resilience. We need to plan for climate migration. We need to rebuild economies and tend to ecosystems and invest in green technology and foster community resilience and begin to sink carbon into the soil. But instead, our health and the livelihood of one of the world’s largest economies waits at the whims of someone who delights in being spiteful. Even now the wind is blowing, hot and dangerous.