In this conservative corner of California, a monster fire that killed four people and destroyed dozens of structures is being framed by many in political terms.
Some residents acknowledge the role of climate change in California’s increasingly destructive firestorms, but their true ire is often focused on decades of government policies they believe have worsened the fire risk and made fighting the destructive McKinney fire inside the Klamath National Forest more difficult.
Yreka, which sits in the shadow of that national forest, was once a “timber town” known for its logging industry. Some residents here this week said the slow death of that industry coincided with the increased frequency of wildfire in the area as vegetation became more and more overgrown.
“As a kid we very seldom worried that fires would get out of control and take out whole towns,” said Bill Robberson, 60, a lifelong resident of Siskiyou County and fourth-generation Californian.
Experts said there are many factors behind the blaze. Population growth has pushed more residents into the wildland-urban interface, leaving more homes and people in harm’s way. What’s more, human-caused global warming has contributed to soaring temperatures and searing dryness, creating a recipe for even the smallest of sparks to transform into a firestorm.
“We as a government seem to have no problem declaring an emergency for lots of things, so why doesn’t Washington declare a public health and safety emergency based on forest health and climate change for the Pacific Northwest and make it a priority?” asked Larry Alexander, executive director of the Northern California Resource Center, which sponsors the fire safe council in Yreka and other parts of the county. “It would be beneficial to the forest, beneficial for public health and safety, and it would put a lot of people to work.”