Commentary

White House fire meeting was a bunch of hot air

July 8, 2021 4:46 am

The Robertson Draw Fire burns near the Shetler property. (Courtesy Paul Thomas)

Cancer and wildfire (and probably many other things) share the same rejoinder.

When people talk about the disease, they often say cancer doesn’t care whether you’re Black or White, Democrat or Republican.

The same is true for wildfires. They don’t pick and choose which states to flare up in, based on partisan ideology.

That’s why it’s baffling and disheartening to see President Joe Biden, who talks often about getting work done or working together, snub some of the governors whose states are most threatened by wildfire.

Last week, the Daily Montanan reported that Gov. Greg Gianforte wasn’t invited to what the White House billed as a wildfire summit. Also left off the guest list were Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Arizona’s Doug Ducey.

“A-ha,” some might be tempted to say, “we can see a pattern emerging — all of those are Republican governors.”

It’s as good a guess as any, but it’s wrong. Our neighbor to the south, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, also a Republican, got an invitation. As did many other key officials who will probably have a lot to talk about as this brutal summer continues with months left to go.

And Montana is in a precarious situation: Its No. 1 and No. 2 industries are going to be severely hampered by any weather, especially fire. With more than 90 percent of our state in drought and Gianforte already asking for an emergency declaration, our ranchers and farmers have ample reason to worry. And, as people get out of the house and back on the road for vacation, Montana’s second-largest industry, tourism, could also be given another crippling blow right after the pandemic if fires shut down parks and burn more forest land.

It seems like someone in the White House would have gazed over the terra incognita on the map of the United States — that vast expanse between the two better-known coasts — and thought, “Hmm, there seem to be a lot things that could burn up there in northwestern land located between, say, North Dakota and Washington.”

But if such a musing or consideration happened, we didn’t hear about it.

In fact, our reporters and some from around the state and beyond all sent questions to the White House’s communications team about why some Western states governors had been left out of a meeting that allegedly was meant to call together leaders from, (drum roll, please) Western states.

Answers reporters got back were some mealy-mouthed platitudes about the importance of working together to combat wildfires — as if we were questioning whether there’d be any response to wildfires, which last year burned approximately 10.5 million acres across the country — twice the size of New Jersey.

Before the meeting at the White House, significant fires had already broken out in Arizona and Montana. And the federal government has already declared more than half of the counties in Montana a disaster area because of extreme drought. It seems like if you were planning to solicit expert feedback, Gianforte might be a good place to start.

Granted, Gianforte’s politics are far right and don’t easily mesh with the politics of the current White House resident, but farmers needing help, fire suppression and upping the pay of federal firefighters isn’t really partisan. It’s essential.

Some might say a gathering of political brass at a federal dog-and-pony show is little more than political theater. Few forest fires will be fought via Zoom, the medium used for some of the meeting. But while the link between some federal policies — say for example, the position of the national government on migratory birds — will have less impact on the average Montanan, things like drought, fires and climate change will touch nearly every one of Montana’s million-plus residents in some way. As much as the meeting was a gathering to talk about firefighters, it was also symbolic.

It was a missed opportunity: President Biden had the rare opportunity to set the example — to lead with action. For some reason — one that has never been fully explained by the president or his media handlers — he chose politics over people. He played into critics’ hands, and they’re right for pummeling him.

If we’re going to bring back cooperation, bipartisanship and compromise, it has to start with an example. And it might as well start from the top. For all the talk of setting a presidential example, this was a move straight out of a partisan playbook.

It makes me wonder if all that talk isn’t a bunch of hot air.

And with the fire danger for more than 90 percent of the state at very high, hot air is the last thing Montana needs.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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