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The Morning Dispatch: Wildfires Continue to Rage Out West
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The Morning Dispatch: Wildfires Continue to Rage Out West

Plus, two Los Angeles sheriff deputies are ambushed.

Happy Monday! Who has two thumbs and led the Chicago Bears to a come-from-behind win yesterday down 17 points in the fourth quarter? Mitch Trubisky, that’s who.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 36,618 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 4.8 percent of the 771,475 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 371 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 194,041.

  • Tropical Storm Sally is expected to strengthen into a hurricane and make landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi as early as today. 

  • Oracle reportedly beat out Microsoft for the right to the U.S. operations of TikTok, the Chinese-owned video sharing app. The proposed deal—which President Trump had mandated be done by September 15—will now go through a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS).

  • Bahrain became the latest Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, with President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announcing the deal—“a historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East”—on Friday.

  • Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced the resumption of clinical trials in the United Kingdom for its COVID-19 vaccine, four days after the studies were paused following a suspected adverse reaction from a participant in the U.K. The clinical trials for the AstraZeneca vaccine remain suspended in the United States, Brazil, and South Africa. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CBS News yesterday there is a “good chance” the company will know if its COVID-19 vaccine works by the end of October.

  • Tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem won the women’s and men’s singles U.S. Open titles.

Wildfires Continue to Rage Along the West Coast

Large swaths of the western United States remain on fire, and even larger areas were covered with smoke and ash over the weekend.

While some of the larger blazes—especially in California—are now at least partly contained, the combination of wind gusts and dry weather expected over the next few days has given state fire agencies reason to worry. More than 3 million acres have burned in California, and flames have scorched 1 million more in Oregon, causing 40,000 to flee their homes. Thirty-three people are dead across California, Oregon, and Washington. 

Portland had the worst air quality index (AQI) score—423—of any major city in the world as of Monday morning; anything higher than 300 receives a “hazardous” classification, where staying indoors at all times is recommended. Vancouver and Seattle follow Portland in the world rankings, with San Francisco placing fifth and Los Angeles 11th. Ash has rendered the sky in much of California and Oregon an eerie orange hue.

Among those fleeing the devastation was Steve Hochman, who outlined his family’s decision to leave their home in Hood River, Oregon. “Around 1 in the morning, it became obvious that we were getting inundated with smoke, even indoors,” he said. “We found ourselves hiding under the sheets trying to keep the smoke at bay.”

Reached at a hotel in Ketchum, Idaho, Hochman stressed repeatedly that his family was relatively lucky. He was right: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told reporters on Wednesday five towns in the state had been “substantially destroyed” by wildfires. Thousands of homes have been lost, with fire crews struggling to contain conflagrations while praying for more favorable weather. 

California has experienced one devastating fire season after another in recent years, and in 2020 has set a grim record for acreage burned—with more than months left to go. And despite its modestly cooler temperatures, autumn in California might not provide much reprieve. The Santa Ana winds—which typically pick up in the fall—threaten to make the fires even more perilous, gusting embers over roads and firebreaks, blowing down power lines, and sweeping blazes into towns and cities.

Environmental historian Stephen Pyne is gobsmacked by what he’s seen the past several weeks. “I can find historic precedent for probably any of these fires … or maybe a couple,” he said. “But to have the whole West Coast at one time go like this … that’s not precedented.”

Pyne pointed to three main factors for the fires’ increasing scale and intensity. Rising temperatures caused by climate change both increase the amount of dry, dead wood and brush and enable the spread of insects that kill trees, effectively turning them into kindling. The decline of agriculture around population centers has eliminated buffer zones between people and fire, and sprawling suburbs and exurbs (with their accompanying power lines) have pushed human settlement closer to areas particularly susceptible to blazes. A century of forest mismanagement in the West has exacerbated the first two.

Pyne noted that the U.S. Forest Service’s ending in the 1920s of “light burning” to clear forest—used by Native Americans and early settlers for economic and fire control reasons—cleared the way for a policy of “fire suppression.” This is the strategy that birthed the “10 a.m.” fire: the goal that all wildfires would be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day after they were reported. 

Pyne says this strategy is like “an urban fire service out in the woods.” Constant firefighting allows fuel—in the form of new growth and underbrush—to pile up to uncontainable levels; a kind of “fire debt” that the West is now paying. Many states have reformed their policies on this to varying degrees, but firefighting agencies in California—where the Air Resources Board has until recently made controlled burning extremely difficult—remain largely stuck in the 10 a.m. ethos. The result is a deadly feedback loop. 

Craig Thomas—the founder of the Fire Restoration Group, a nonprofit that works with governments and communities to integrate fire policy with fire ecology—said communities are going to have to change how they fit into their local landscapes. In an interview with The Dispatch, he noted that new real estate developments are often built on ridge lines, but those ridge lines should be where fuel breaks go to form defensible perimeters against fires. 

In addition to being more judicious with new construction, Thomas continued, Californians need to clear land around houses, fireproof buildings, and tolerate a few days of slightly smoky air from controlled burns to forestall larger fires with far more smoke. State resources, he said, need to be directed toward “restoration” (controlled burns and brush clearing) to check the massive and rising costs of suppression.

But even if these best practices and regulatory reforms were adopted and implemented tomorrow, both Pyne and Thomas agreed that California and the West will continue to experience unprecedented fires in the years to come. Rising temperatures and massive “fire debts” mean the blazes of the past few years are, in many ways, becoming the new normal. 

As California Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers press conferences from a burned-out forest and President Trump prepares to visit the state today, the question becomes: How much of a new normal will we allow it to become? Will the region’s crisis evolve into yet another partisan stalemate in the nation’s battles over climate change? Or will it spur leaders to adopt best practices known about for decades, committing to what Thomas calls the “forever mindset” of careful management of communities and their wildlands?

Police Officers Ambushed in Los Angeles

Two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies who were shot in Compton on Saturday night—a 24-year-old male and a 31-year-old female—are out of surgery and expected to recover, according to Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Video footage of the shooting tweeted by the Sheriff’s Department shows an individual slowly approaching the passenger window of a stopped police car, firing a weapon inside, and running away. The perpetrator remains at large.

“This is just a somber reminder that this is a dangerous job, and actions, words have consequences,” Villanueva said at a press conference. “Our job does not get any easier because people don’t like law enforcement.”

Both major-party presidential candidates were quick to condemn the senseless shooting. “If they die, fast trial death penalty for the killer,” President Trump tweeted Sunday morning. “Only way to stop this!”

“Jill and I were devastated to learn of the cold-blooded shooting of two Los Angeles County deputies yesterday,” Joe Biden said in a statement yesterday. “Acts of lawlessness and violence directed against police officers are unacceptable, outrageous, and entirely counterproductive to the pursuit of greater peace and justice in America — as are the actions of those who cheer such attacks on. Those who perpetrate these crimes must be brought to justice, and, if convicted, face the full brunt of the law.”

Believe it or not, that Biden condemnation of those “cheering such attacks on” was actually referring to a real-life occurrence. A handful of protesters showed up to St. Francis Hospital to block the emergency room entrance and wish the two deputies ill in their recovery. “I hope they die, motherf****s,” shouted one man. “Y’all gonna die one by one,” another said, addressing the officers guarding the hospital. “This ain’t gonna stop.”

Two people were arrested after authorities issued a dispersal order; one was a reporter for KPCC public radio. The Sheriff’s Department tweeted she “did not identify herself as press and later admitted she did not have proper press credentials on her person.” But she can clearly be heard in video footage of the arrest—as she’s being tackled to the ground—shouting that she’s a reporter and “with KPCC.”

Worth Your Time

  • When Chris Nocco became Pasco County sheriff in 2011, he hoped to create a system not unlike PreCrime from the movie, Minority Report: A “cutting-edge intelligence program that could stop crime before it happened.” The results, per a Tampa Bay Times investigation by Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi, were disastrous. “The Sheriff’s Office generates lists of people it considers likely to break the law, based on arrest histories, unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions by police analysts,” the pair write. “Then it sends deputies to find and interrogate anyone whose name appears, often without probable cause, a search warrant or evidence of a specific crime.”

  • “There is now a real risk of military conflict between India and China,” Devesh Kapur, director of Asia programs at Johns Hopkins University, writes in his latest for the Financial Times. “While the world remains preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the US distracted by domestic politics, India and China are involved in an unprecedented military build-up along their long-disputed border.” Check out the rest of Kapur’s analysis of why “It is no longer possible to dismiss the conflict between India and China as a skirmish.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David’s French Press yesterday delved into critical race theory (CRT)—the notion that “racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society” and the “individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.” David bucks conservative orthodoxy in concluding CRT can be useful in a limited way, by helping one “understand the reason for persistent disparities.” Still, he cautions, the racialization of nearly everything, as critical race theory assumes, means it “falters and ultimately fails.”

  • Jonah’s Friday G-File looks at the new centrists: People who, despite their ideological differences, are not “apocalyptic, conspiratorial, or in a constant state of panic.” Elites, Jonah argues, are often the most susceptible to this form of extremism. “National elites, senators, talk show hosts, pundits, authors, movie stars, and others think that the rebuilding effort must be led from above, usually from Washington.” He discusses all this and more in Saturday’s Ruminant.

  • Thomas Joscelyn joined Steve and Sarah on the Dispatch Podcast on the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to discuss the state of the war on terror nearly two decades later. “Al-Qaeda is still very much alive,” Joscelyn argued, despite the happy talk from both major political parties. Stick around for a discussion on the lasting influence of the attacks on American society, and an assessment of the state of foreign election interference.

  • Coming tomorrow: The return of Dispatch Live! Join the editors and your fellow Dispatch members for an hour of lively discussion at 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT on Tuesday, September 15. Reminder—this event is for members only. You can RSVP here.

Let Us Know

What’d you think of our first fanless NFL Sunday yesterday? Could you tell the difference watching on TV? What impact—if any—does it have on the games?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).