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Western Fires Have Become Part Of The Political Landscape

Chip Redmond / InciWeb
The Mullen Fire moves toward Colorado on September 30, 2020.

Every four years there's a near universal complaint that western issues get passed over in presidential elections. Not this year, which is mostly because large swaths of the West have been burning.

As the Mullen Fire continues consuming tens and tens and tens of thousands of acres across Wyoming and Colorado, many of the nation's elected officials here in Washington have no idea. That's partly because much of the media consumed on the East Coast comes from New York City or even here in Washington. But Wyoming's lawmakers, like Senator John Barrasso, have been trying to call attention to western fires for years now.

"Wildfires have been devastating to the West, and we have a wildfire burning right now in Wyoming, and there's always a concern of how to best do this, as part of the Energy Committee, I have served in the hearings related to it and how to make sure there's adequate funding and resources that are sometimes, right now, being overwhelmed," Barrasso said.

Barrasso now admits that climate change is man-made, but he says environmentalists are to blame for much of these raging infernos.

"With some of the environmental protectionist activities, it's hard to actually make sure that our forests are healthy. And so if you have dead timber that can't be removed, because environmental extremists don't allow that to happen, that makes those much more likely to ignite and burn longer and hotter," Barrasso said.

In Wednesday evening's Vice Presidential Debate, moderator Susan Page asked Vice President Mike Pence about the fires.

"We have seen record setting wildfires in the West. Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded that manmade climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter and more deadly. And have made hurricanes wetter, slower, and more damaging?" Page asked.

"Thank you Susan," Pence replied. "First, I'm very proud of our record on the environment and on conservation."

The sitting vice president then went on to basically endorse Barrasso's calls to loosen environmental restrictions on public lands while also seeking to end environmental reviews for some lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"With regard to wildfires. President Trump and I believe that forest management has to be front and center and even Governor Gavin Newsome from your state has agreed we've got to work on forest management," Pence said.

While Pence never answered the moderator's question about climate change, just last month Governor Newsom addressed the issue while surveying a devastated community with California Senator Kamala Harris, who also happens to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.

"The hots are getting hotter; the dries are getting drier. Climate change is real. If you don't believe in science, come to California and observe with your own eyes. You cannot be in denial about this reality," Newsom said.

While touring the devastation with Newsom, Harris highlighted the personal toll left in the wake of these fires that have ripped across more than 4 million acres in California alone this year - a record no one in the state wanted.

"You can go to some of the areas, especially the residential areas, and you'll see where the fire just swept through - so everything is gone except the chimney. Those chimneys, they remind me when you look at it in a neighborhood that has been wiped out, those chimneys remind me of tombstones. So these are the stories behind these fires," Harris said.

Harris says the intensity of today's wildfires are clearly tied to climate change. She also says it shouldn't be a political issue.

"The people who are or victimized by these, you know, they could care less and their children could care less who they voted for in the last election. This is not a partisan issue. This is not an - ideology should not kick in. It's just a fact. This is just a fact. And we have to do better as a country," Harris said.

Still, Pence ripped on the Harris-Biden ticket for promising to put the US back in the Paris Climate Accord, while also promising a quick transition to renewable energy. And while Harris and Biden say they won't implement the Green New Deal, Pence also blasted them for having a similar plan up on their website. But at a Republican press conference on a windy day on the Capitol steps last month, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney put that GOP attack this way:

"Every day, you see the damage of years of Democrat policies. Today, we see the fires ravaging the American west, fires that are there because of the policies of neglect -- Democrat administrations leaving our forests to die," Cheney said.

As for Senator Barrasso and his proposals for more forest clearing and less federal management, he says he's still trying to convince his colleagues to take the measures up.

"It seems every year we have a hearing on the topic, go through the issues of wildfires, of healthy forest management. I've had bills on that, to try to make sure that managed forests are better to resist these mega fires that we've been having, and I think that's an important thing to pursue legislatively," Barrasso said.

Even with leaders of the two parties talking past each other on wildfires and climate change, many westerners were just happy to see their issues finally discussed nationally. As for what's next? That's up to voters to decide in November.


Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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