SAN DIEGO — Even in a presidential election year, not everything is about politics. In fact, the things that have the greatest impact on our lives — for better or worse — have nothing to do with red states or blue states.
This includes the devastating fires sweeping across the western United States.
“Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”
That phrase — which is often attributed to author and newspaper editor Horace Greeley — embodied the spirit of America’s westward expansion in the mid-19th century and the concept of Manifest Destiny.
Yet, in the apocalyptic year of 2020, the destiny of the West is, to put it mildly, uncertain. Suddenly, the Northeast winters, Midwest tornadoes, or Gulf Coast hurricanes that we fled in search of a gentler climate don’t seem so bad.
Out West, the climate isn’t so gentle after all.
Americans have always headed toward the sunset for a fresh start. Now, with white ash blanketing rooftops and the skies clouded in orange haze, it doesn’t look like the start of anything fresh. It looks like the end of days.
According to CBS News on Thursday, there were nearly 100 active wildfires charring nearly a dozen states in the West. Basically, on a map of the United States, it looks like everything west of Kansas is on fire.
Entire towns have been wiped out in several states.
National Public Radio reported that Oregon had at least 35 fires. Gov. Kate Brown is warning of historic loss of life and property as a result of what she calls a “once in a generation” fire storm.
Her words are revealing. An elected official might once have said “once in a century.” Now, no one knows what disaster is around the corner.
As a lifelong resident of hard-hit California, my heart is heavy. I’ve seen this story before and up-close. My family has been evacuated three times in the last 15 years, and the last time flames got within a quarter mile of our home.
These days, I’m thinking a lot about my first home. My small hometown in Central California is less than an hour away from the horrendous Creek Fire, which has burned more than 175,000 acres in the Sierra National Forest. Nearly 50,000 people have been evacuated. A couple of hundred people trapped by road closures had to be rescued by helicopters manned by the California National Guard.
This horror movie is playing out in what used to be my backyard, in tiny mountain towns like Shaver Lake, which has for generations welcomed campers, hikers and fishermen. These are the places where we went for higher climate, cleaner air and cooler weather. High school friends now live there with their families.
I’m heartsick. Every one of these fires is about more than burnt acreage. It’s about people who lose their homes, and communities that lose their bearings.
But I’m also angry.
I’m not angry at Mother Nature. In states like Nevada or Arizona, it’s been hot in the summer since “summer” was invented.
I’m also not angry over the fact, in California, a decade of drought has dried out mountains of brush and turned it into kindling.
But I am fed up with my fellow Californians and other westerners — on both sides of the ideological divide — who don’t have the self-control to resist the impulse to interrupt all this human suffering to insert their own political ad.
On talk radio, through social media and in letters to local newspapers, the one thing we have an abundance of in the West is pettiness.
The only narratives that people are interested in are the ones that advance what they already believe.
On the right, conservatives are blaming the fires on environmentalists, who have worked for years to prevent logging and the removing of excess brush out of affection for the same trees that are now, ironically, burning to the ground.
On the left, liberals blame climate change, which they say causes higher-than-normal temperatures. California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who never met a crisis he didn’t bungle — said recently that he has “no patience for climate-change deniers.”
Give it a rest, folks. You can fight this out another time. Our only priority at this moment is to rescue, reflect, repair and rebuild.
The man said: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.”
In the West, it’s time to shelve the politics — and just grow up.
© 2020 Washington Post Writers Group