Cumberland Advisors Market Commentary – Wildfire: More Than a Song

Author: David R. Kotok, Post Date: September 20, 2020
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Smokey Atmosphere at Montana-Idaho Border by Mitch Kotok - Red ball is the sun - Sept 2020
Fires near the West Coast of the US created this surreal smoky atmosphere at the Montana-Idaho border. Now appearing as a red ball, the sun peeks through the haze-filled sky. Photo, Mitch Kotok, Sept 2020.

Let’s begin this missive with some remarks on wildfire issues from Philippa Dunne of TLR Analytics. Philippa has vast personal experience with fires and is one of our nation’s highly skilled analysts of labor data cohorts, including firefighters.

“Over the last decades, yes decades, news pieces on short-handed fire-crews losing control of western fires have proliferated. Firefighting is one job where redundancies are crucial. When the winds change, they shift the direction of the fire, as is likely to happen in the coming days, often trapping the crews on the wrong side of the column. Unless you have lived it, it’s hard to comprehend the anguish of waiting for the sound of sirens coming in from, say, Bakersfield.

“In purely economic terms, Governor Newsom did the right thing in ‘righting a historic wrong’ and expunging the records of some of the heroes fighting in the California Department of Corrections’ fire crews. Opening this door may also push back on the staggeringly inaccurate narrative concerning bringing ex-convicts into the workforce, and we’ll let Jeff Korzenik do the talking there.

“The power of economic narratives, carefully detailed by Robert Shiller, is demonstrated by one currently circling, further endangering the lives of our firefighters. Anyone who has been through a fire knows, ‘Listen to the fire commands.’ There’s always some looting or other mischief involved in mass evacuations, and people sometimes defy evacuation orders in order to hose down their roofs, not the smartest thing but pretty effective in smaller fires.

“But something different is happening today. Some Oregon residents are defying evacuation orders to protect their homes not from the fires but from left-wing looters they have been misled to believe cooked the whole thing up, flooding already overwhelmed fire departments, grappling with what they fear will be “mass fatality” events, with nuisance calls.

“The arson narrative, debunked by fire & police departments up and down the West Coast, is spreading on social media. The evacuation orders are coming directly from expert teams watching from helicopters and through other imagery.

“That’s some narrative. We all have voices.”

(Excerpted from TLRwire, Sept. 14, 2020. Subscription info available here: https://www.tlranalytics.com/subscriptions/tlr-wire/.)

Dear readers, more than one of every five dollars of US GDP originates in the states hit by the monster conflagration happening out West. How do we amass the labor force to deal with this problem? And in the midst of a pandemic, how do we do it safely? My friend Philippa Dunne has raised profound questions about labor and social issues related to wildfires.

Further, as we confront this historic wildfire season, we must also be thinking about the climate change issue and the great debate that revolves around it. Sadly, we are again witness to the political blame game. Candidate Trump participated in a panel discussion on the fires in Sacramento on Sept. 14. Instead of acknowledging the role of climate change, the president instead sought to lay the blame at the feet of the governors of the Western states, pointing again to “forest management” as the cause of the record fires.

California Governor Gavin Newsom responded by pointing out to Trump that 57% of forest land in California is owned by the federal government, and 3% is owned by the State of California. Newsom agreed that forest management has played a role in the worsened fire danger, but said climate change is a much bigger factor.

Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Natural Resources, added, “If we… think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed….”

Trump’s response: “Ok, it’ll start getting cooler; you just watch.”

Crowfoot: “I wish science agreed with you.”

Trump: “I don’t think science knows, actually.”

(“‘I Don’t Think Science Knows, Actually’: Trump Dismisses Climate Science In California Wildfire Discussion,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackbrewster/2020/09/14/i-dont-think-science-knows-actually-trump-dismisses-climate-science-in-california-wildfire-discussion/#1f729d202e85)

Not surprisingly, candidate Biden has labeled Trump a “climate arsonist” (“Biden calls Trump a ‘climate arsonist’ who ‘won’t take responsibility’ for wildfires,” Fox News, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/biden-charges-trumps-a-climate-arsonist-who-wont-take-responsibility-for-wildfires). The governors (both Democrats and Republicans) of the various states are worried about their constituents and now face two crises: COVID-19 and wildfires. And they face them at a time when their state and local budgets are in trouble and Congress has failed to agree on a bill to help state and local governments deal with COVID-19 impacts.

Note: “The original commentary distributed via email contained an error, which we’ve replaced with correct information below. We thank reader David Kruschwitz for calling the correction to our attention. To read our followup commentary detailing those changes, please follow this link: https://www.cumber.com/cumberland-advisors-market-commentary-wildfire-correction-and-addition/

Here is a daily update source for fire information: https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm. Hat tip to Frank Mitchell for the link. Scroll down to “Current Fires” to see how many places are impacted and how much acreage is federal. Remember, the United States has vast holdings of federally owned forests. They are managed in a number of ways.

They are housed in  the Department of the Interior up to a point. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is an arm of the Department of the Interior, manages 246 million acres of public lands; but only a small portion of the that land is forested (much of it is rangeland or desert). Forested public land is mostly under the purview of the US Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service manages 193 million acres. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in in the Department of the Interior, manages 89 million acres as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the National Park Service (NPS), also in the Department of the Interior, manages 80 million acres in the National Park System.

The Secretary of the Interior is David Bernhardt, former oil and energy industry lobbyist. He was appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate, of which Mitch McConnell is majority leader. Federal lands are burning right now. So ask yourself about the blame-game politics and responsibility. While you are at it, ask what the counterfactual would be if these fires were all burning in the State of Kentucky?

Readers that are interested in more detail on federal land management may wish to peruse the following: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF10585.pdf

The fact is that a huge labor force shock is underway and that more than one-fifth of the US economy is hurt by these fires (Why Wildfires Are So Bad This Year in California, Oregon and Washington,” Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-wildfires-are-so-bad-this-year-in-california-oregon-and-washington-11599768604).

The private and public sectors are both impacted by wildfires and other natural disasters. Cumberland Senior Vice President of Research, Patricia Healy CFA, had this to say in the Sept. 16 issue of This Week in Bondland:

“Hurricanes and wildfires continue to wreak havoc on some municipalities, with evacuations a challenge given the COVID fears and the difficulty of social distancing in an emergency. Although many localities will benefit from FEMA aid and the increase in economic activity that comes with rebuilding, a fire or hurricane can be a major disruption and a drain on resources and can potentially lead to credit downgrades. The frequency of events in some places may have inhabitants, insurers, and government questioning the viability of living there and continually rebuilding.”

Expect to see the above quote and more from Patty in an upcoming full commentary on municipal credit and western fires published to our website and email list.

That damage piles atop the impacts of a pandemic that has caused the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And in the case of the fires, just as with the pandemic, a lack of federal action and funding for state and local governments can and will impair what was starting to be a fast recovery. Congress stopped doing its job and is fiddling, just as Nero did when Rome burned. Only this time it is the American West that is burning.

Where are the Senators and all of the House members of the ten states affected by wildfire thus far this fire season? Like the bipartisan group of Congress Members, They should form a mass coalition to pass a bill in both chambers and extend federal funding power to state and local governments as well as to supplement the firefighting efforts and the public health effort to counter both smoke-related respiratory illness and COVID-19.

There is serious evidence that the risk of very large wildfires is being amplified by climate change; and that the risk is real and growing, not just in the Far West but all across the US, including in Southeastern states like Florida and Georgia. See “Climate change presents increased potential for very large fires in the contiguous United States,” CSIRO, https://www.publish.csiro.au/wf/WF15083.

On Sept. 16, the Global Interdependence Center sponsored an executive briefing on the impacts of climate change, featuring Bob Bunting, CEO of the Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Center and a frequent guest author of Cumberland commentaries that have explored the effects of a warming climate on hurricanes, sea level rise, red tides, and human health. The GIC briefing may be viewed here: https://www.interdependence.org/resources/gic-executive-briefing-climate-change/.

Meanwhile, as forests and homes burn and lives are lost, conspiracy theorists are ranting and a social media frenzy is heating toward a flash point. We are even seeing a revival of the rotten old chestnut of blaming forest mismanagement, and thus the fires themselves, on the spotted owl. Interestingly, there is recent research which suggests that fires are not a serious threat to populations of spotted owls (“Wildfire management designed to protect Spotted Owls may be outdated,” Penn State Eberly College of Science, https://science.psu.edu/news/wildfire-management-designed-protect-spotted-owls-may-be-outdated). And increasingly, in the fire-prone West, a powerful coalition of timber companies, environmental groups, federal and state forestry agencies, and local governments is working hard to update fire-management policies and programs (“Trump officials blame ‘environmental terrorists’ for wildfires. California loggers disagree,” Sacramento Bee, https://www.sacbee.com/latest-news/article218559945.html).

We’ll end with a song that many may remember from times past when things were calmer. It features a poignant story in melodic form that transports our psyches and lives in memory. For me, it triggers nostalgia for a past that seems to have disappeared.

“Wildfire,” Michael Martin Murphey, 1975, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc3OnSQc48s

David R. Kotok
Chairman of the Board & Chief Investment Officer
Email | Bio


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