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In red California, a deadly fire ignites political rage at liberal government

Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

YREKA, Calif. — In this conservative corner of California, a monster fire that killed four people and destroyed more than 100 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.

Still, some stakeholders in the community said bureaucratic red tape has prevented essential work from occurring. Their concerns reflected a mounting frustration with decision-makers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., who they said often fail to keep the interests of rural, conservative Northern California top of mind.

 

"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."

Dissatisfaction with state and federal government was a common refrain among locals in the county, which is in the heart of the proposed state of Jefferson. The breakaway state would include portions of Northern California and southern Oregon, where many residents of the largely remote and rural region believe they have been neglected by the governments of both states.

The Jefferson movement is decades old — Yreka was the proposed capital in the original 1941 plan — but has gained new energy in recent years as supporters say liberal Democratic policies around issues such as gun control, immigration and taxes are unaligned with their interests. And as the region's once-booming timber industry has become increasingly hobbled by regulations, environmentalism, technological advances and other market forces, many locals started looking toward the now-smoldering forestland with a growing sense of betrayal.

"When we lost the logging industry around this area, it was devastating for us," Yreka Mayor Duane Kegg said. "We lost a lot of our economy, and losing a lot of economy has a trickle-down effect on a lot of different issues — homelessness, people going through drug and alcohol problems. We've seen it over the years, and I attribute all of this to back in the '80s, losing our logging industry."

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