President Biden is making his first visit as president to the West Coast on Monday, but his travels to survey the damage from wildfires in California mark his second trip in as many weeks to bring attention to the immense human and financial costs of climate change.
Mr. Biden is expected to visit California’s Office of Emergency Services, where he will get a briefing on the Caldor fire and then fly over the fire on Marine One, followed by public remarks.
Mr. Biden went to New York and New Jersey earlier this month to survey the damage from the remnants of Hurricane Ida. But the wildfire crisis in California is in many ways more severe: The state is struggling to cope with fires that are getting more intense and deadly almost every year, with no quick or easy options for reducing the damage.
Over the past decade, the number of fires in California each year has remained consistent, hovering around 7,000 to 10,000 annually. What has changed is their scale.
Until 2018, the largest recorded wildfires in the state for which reliable numbers exist never reached 300,000 acres, according to state data. In 2018, a fire consumed almost 460,000 acres, and last year, the August fire topped 1 million acres, making it the largest blaze in the state’s history.
The Dixie fire, which has already burned more than 960,000 acres and is only two-thirds contained, seems likely to break that record. “The fire situation in California is unrecognizably worse than it was a decade ago,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University.
As the fires have grown, so has the damage they cause. In 2017, California wildfires damaged or destroyed more than 10,000 structures — more than during the five previous years combined. The next year, that number more than doubled, to almost 25,000.
The toll on people’s health and safety has increased as well. From 2012 to 2016, wildfires killed fewer than 20 people in total, according to state data. In 2017, 47 people died; another hundred people were killed in 2018, and 33 people in 2020.
But the human toll is far greater than those numbers suggest. The smoke from wildfires is more toxic than other types of pollution, research suggests, and the health damage is particularly bad for children. The smoke even appears to be driving up the number of deaths linked to Covid-19.
The wildfire crisis in California has often become a political fight. Last summer, then-president Donald J. Trump blamed California for its fire problem, and initially denied federal disaster aid.
“You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” Mr. Trump said at the time, in comments that emphasized just one aspect of a complex problem. “There are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable.”
Mr. Trump also dismissed the link between forest fires and global warming. When state officials urged him not to ignore the science of climate change, which shows that higher temperatures and drought are making fires worse, Mr. Trump inaccurately responded, “I don’t think science actually knows.”
While Mr. Trump was wrong to dismiss the role played by climate change in exacerbating the fires, he was right that more aggressive forest management is vital for addressing those fires, experts say. But much of that work must come from the federal government, which owns about half the land in California, Dr. Wara said.
Mr. Biden’s first budget request, earlier this year, didn’t ask Congress for enough money to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation in the nation’s forests, Dr. Wara said. But the infrastructure bill now before Congress would significantly increase that funding.
“There’s no fixing the wildfire problem without dealing with how forests have been managed,” Dr. Wara said.