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Why did Lindsey Graham join a climate group?

Congress has long been a place where climate policy goes to die. That could soon change, and not only because there’s an election coming up in less than a year.

A new bipartisan climate caucus has formed in the Senate. It’s similar to a climate caucus in the House that’s been around since 2016: There must be one Republican for every Democrat who joins, and the group aims to educate members on policy and, ideally, propose pathways to action. But the House version has run into some serious roadblocks: it lost a chunk of its right flank in the 2018 midterm election, and it’s having trouble recruiting enough Republican members for the many Democrats who wish to join.

In the few weeks since it’s been up and running, the caucus in the upper chamber has had no difficulty attracting high-profile GOP members. Senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Marco Rubio are among the Republicans who have joined the group. Surprisingly, so has South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, one of President Trump’s staunchest supporters.

“I believe climate change is real,” Graham said in a statement. “I also believe that we as Americans have the ability to come up with climate change solutions that can benefit our economy and our way of life.”

That sounds like the Lindsey Graham of yore, who was more centrist than firebrand. In 2009, Graham teamed up with Democratic Senator John Kerry to push for climate legislation in the Senate. In 2015, he garnered praise for being one of only two Republican presidential contenders who had a history of engaging with climate and environment issues. In 2017, he urged President Trump to stay in the Paris climate accord, arguing that the leader of the Republican Party should not break with the rest of the world on an issue supported by sound science.

In the two years since he disagreed with Trump on the Paris Agreement, an unearthly transformation has transpired: Graham devolved from independent lone wolf to White House lapdog so rapidly that researchers were forced to reevaluate Charles Darwin’s seminal theory. Graham’s sudden zeal for defending the actions of the Commander in Chief — a man he once called “unfit for office” — inspired him to do things like go on Trump’s favorite Fox News show to compliment the president’s golf game. “To every Republican, if you don’t stand behind this President, we’re not going to stand behind you,” he said in South Carolina in February.

Given Trump’s aversion to climate science and working with Democrats, Graham’s decision to join a bipartisan climate solutions caucus is odd. Is Graham reverting to his old centrist ways? Or is there a more cynical explanation for his presence on the caucus?

It’s possible — in the sense that almost anything is possible — that Graham genuinely wants to reach across the aisle to take action on climate change. His recent voting record on the environment is surprisingly strong, by Republican standards. So far in 2019, he has cast five pro-environment votes, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a political group that keeps track of how members of Congress vote on environmental policy. That’s a far better record than other Republican members of the caucus, like Romney and Rubio, who only cast one pro-environment vote this year each.

But there’s another potential explanation, one that’s more in line with the partisan choices Graham has made in the past couple of years of the Trump administration. Perhaps Graham joined the caucus not to work with Democrats, but to stymie them. His motivation might be to ensure that other lawmakers decide to adopt a conservative vision of climate action, instead of something like the Green New Deal.

“If the only thing out there is the Green New Deal, well, the American people will take it,” Bob Inglis, former U.S. representative from Graham’s home state of South Carolina, told Grist. “You’ve got to get out there with an alternative. That’s what Republicans are doing, they’ve figured out how to enter the competition of ideas and present an alternative.”

Whether Graham and his fellow GOP-ers use the caucus as an opportunity to push for meaningful alternatives to progressive climate change solutions remains to be seen. The American Petroleum Institute, a group that has a long history of successfully lobbying against environmental regulations, called the caucus a “promising addition to the national conversation,” something that has climate activists on edge.

But activists would do well to remember that the new Lindsey Graham is in the habit of doing whatever is politically expedient. The South Carolinian may have sensed that denial may not serve the GOP much longer.

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Why did Lindsey Graham join a climate group?

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We’ve entered the era of ‘fire tsunamis’

Life in the Rocky Mountains is frequently extreme as blizzards, baking sun, and fires alternate with the seasons. But fire tsunamis? Those aren’t normal.

On Thursday, one observer described a “tsunami” of flames overnight at the Spring Creek fire near La Veta in the south-central part of the state. And you can’t stop tsunamis.

“It was a perfect firestorm,” Ben Brack, incident commander for the Spring Creek fire, told the Denver Post. “You can imagine standing in front of a tsunami or tornado and trying to stop it from destroying homes. A human response is ineffective.”

Pyrocumulus clouds, a sure indicator of intense heat release from wildfire, were clearly visible from 100 miles away. The fire is just five percent contained and covers more than 100,000 acres — larger than the city limits of Denver — making it the third-largest wildfire in state history.

A 300-foot tower of flames wiped out an entire subdivision, according to the Post. Officials aren’t yet sure how many homes were torched overnight (they’re too busy fighting the fire to count), but the latest available number is in the hundreds. No one has been injured or killed so far.

The official term for the hellish meteorological event that hit La Veta is a “firestorm,” a self-propelling explosion of flame generated by strong and gusty winds from a particularly intense fire over extremely dry terrain. When a fire gets hot enough, it can generate its own weather conditions and wind speeds can approach hurricane force, drying out the surrounding land. In just a few hours on Wednesday night, the Spring Creek fire swelled by nearly 20,000 acres, with airborne sparks igniting new fires nearly one mile downwind.

Months of unusually dry and warm weather have combined to push Colorado’s fire risk to “historic levels,” leading the state to close millions of acres of public lands. Two-thirds of the state is in drought. It’s part of a pattern of intense fire danger currently plaguing most of the western United States, which is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Fire is a natural part of ecosystems throughout the West, but what’s happening now is far from natural. There’s growing evidence that climate change is starting to create the conditions for more frequent firestorms.

In 2012, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history swept through Colorado Springs, torching nearly 350 homes. In 2016, when a fast-moving wildfire destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Fort McMurray, Canada, it took 15 months to fully extinguish. Last year, in Santa Rosa, California, entire neighborhoods were erased.

Over the past two decades, more than 800 million of Colorado’s trees have been consumed by bugs — a phenomenon more common worldwide as warmer temperatures are helping plant-eating pests flourish in previously cool places. To top it off, this past winter was one of the warmest and driest ever recorded, “the stuff of nightmares,” according to local experts. Rivers are running at about half their normal levels, and the summer monsoon rains still haven’t arrived.

It’s clear that the state’s steady and transformative slide into a drier future has already begun. This week’s firestorm is terrifying proof.

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We’ve entered the era of ‘fire tsunamis’

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Historian on Donald Trump’s Civil War Comments: "God Help Us"

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump said in an interview on SiriusXM’s “Main Street Meets the Beltway” show Monday that if Andrew Jackson had been president in 1860, the Civil War would have been averted. “Had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” he stated, and he asked, “Why could that one not have been worked out?”

I asked David Blight, a Yale University historian whose work has focused on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, what he thought of Trump’s remarks. Here’s his response:

“Worked out?” God!…

Well, I just read these postings? So he really said this about Jackson and the Civil War? All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump’s greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however he wishes. This is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the President of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the historic White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped even before the 5th grade. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. My profession should petition the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for forced re-education. It could be a new tradition called the presidential education leave. Or perhaps in New Deal tradition, an “ignorance relief” period. This alone might gain the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.

Hope this helps. God help us.

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Historian on Donald Trump’s Civil War Comments: "God Help Us"

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Top General Tells Senate We Can Win in Afghanistan With Just a “Few Thousand” More Troops

Mother Jones

I almost forgot about this:

The commander of the American-led international military force in Afghanistan, warning that the United States and its NATO allies are facing a “stalemate,” told Congress on Thursday that he needed a few thousand additional troops to more effectively train and advise Afghan soldiers.

“We have a shortfall of a few thousand,” Gen. John W. Nicholson said in a sober assessment of America’s longest war to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A few thousand! We weren’t able to stamp out the Taliban and train the Afghan army when we had over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, but Nicholson wants us to believe we can break the current stalemate with just a few thousand more troops? Is he serious?


Top General Tells Senate We Can Win in Afghanistan With Just a “Few Thousand” More Troops

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Trump Backs Off Torture Because a Guy Named "Mad Dog" Doesn’t Like It

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump on torture, February 6:

I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

Donald Trump on torture, yesterday:

So, I met with General Mattis, who is a very respected guy….I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said — I was surprised — he said, “I’ve never found it to be useful.” He said, “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” And I was very impressed by that answer….It’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say. I thought he would say — you know he’s known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason.1 I thought he’d say “It’s phenomenal, don’t lose it.” He actually said, “No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we’ll do better.”

How about that? It turns out that someone just needed to tell Trump that torture doesn’t work very well. Who knew?

Of course, Trump also said about his conversation, “I’m not saying it changed my mind.” So torture is still on the table. In fact, it’s not really clear what the worst part of this monologue is. I have three candidates:

All it took was one guy with an anecdote to persuade Trump that torture isn’t all that great.
Nonetheless, he’s still willing to do it “if it’s so important to the American people.” WTF?
He just assumed a guy with the nickname “Mad Dog” would love torture. I wonder if this is literally the only reason Trump wanted to meet with him?

Really, state-sponsored torture is a pretty easy thing to figure out. In movies, you can pretty reliably tell who the bad guys are because they torture their prisoners. I think that’s true in real life too.

1Not really. He’s a plenty tough guy, but he doesn’t like his nickname. Mattis is a fan of Marcus Aurelius, owns a huge personal library, and is famous for telling his troops, “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” He has also called Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “apartheid” and added, “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.” I wonder what Trump thinks of that?

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Trump Backs Off Torture Because a Guy Named "Mad Dog" Doesn’t Like It

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20 Female US Presidents, as Imagined by Hollywood

Mother Jones

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If the odds-makers have it right, Hillary Clinton will soon be America’s first female president. But Hollywood, for better or worse, has been imagining women in the Oval Office for more than half a century. Here’s a taste of some scenarios the men of Tinseltown have come up with:

Kisses for My President (1964 movie): Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) is elected the first female commander in chief, leaving hubby Thad stuck in traditional first-lady roles—like attending garden parties. (‘Cuz it’s all about the guy.) All is made right again when President McCloud learns she’s pregnant and resigns.

Warner Brothers

Whoops, Apocalypse (1986 movie): Veep Barbara Jacqueline Adams (Loretta Swit) is elevated to the Oval Office after her boss, a former clown trying to prove his mettle, challenges a journalist to hit him in the stomach (fatally, it turns out) with a crowbar.


Mars Attacks! (1996 movie): First daughter Taffy Dale (Natalie Portman) succeeds her dad (Jack Nicholson) as president after cartoonish aliens gleefully kill everyone else in the government.

Chain of Command (2000 movie): Vice President Gloria Valdez’s (María Conchita Alonso) boss is shot and killed in a struggle over the “football.” As his successor, Valdez must face down China in a nuclear exchange.

Commander in Chief (2005-06 TV series): Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), a Republican congresswoman turned vice president, ignores the dying request of President Teddy Roosevelt Bridges that she step aside to make way for a successor who sees “the same America” as he does.

Contact (1997 movie): In Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, a female “President Lasker” presides over radio contact with extraterrestrials, but she doesn’t survive Hollywood’s knife: In the 1997 movie version, Lasker is replaced by cleverly edited footage of Bill Clinton.

XIII: The Conspiracy (2008 TV miniseries): President Sally Sheridan is assassinated during a Veterans Day speech—her own brother is behind it. The ill-fated series was canceled after only two episodes.

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016 movie): Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) and most of her cabinet are obliterated by nasty alien invaders. (Film critics are forever traumatized.)

20th Century Fox

Hitler’s Daughter (1990 TV movie): So, it turns out the mother of President Leona Crawford Gordon was impregnated by the Fuhrer, brought to the States by U-boat, and then killed by the Nazis shortly after giving birth to America’s future commander in chief. Got that?

USA Network

Prison Break (TV series, 2004-2009): As vice president, Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig) collaborates with “the Company” to fake her brother’s death. When the shadowy group turns on her, she arranges for the president’s assassination so she can assume control.

20th Century Fox Television

Divergent (2011-13 novel series, 2014 film)
In a society sorted by personality type, President Jeanine Matthews—actress Kate Winslet likens her character to a “female Hitler”—aims to kill factionless Divergents, whom she sees as a threat to her dominion.

Scandal (TV series, 2012-present): Ultraconservative VP Sally Langston (Kate Burton) kills her husband and hides the evidence. Then, after a would-be assassin leaves President Fitzgerald Grant in critical condition, she takes over the White House.

Hail to the Chief (1985 TV series): President Julia Mansfield (Patty Duke) struggles to run the country while keeping tabs on her philandering husband and wild teenagers. The series was canceled after seven episodes. Go figure.

Mafia! (1998 movie): Diane Steen (Christina Applegate) almost achieves world disarmament—but peace is put on the back burner when her mobster ex-boyfriend comes around looking to win her back.

The Simpsons (2000 “Bart to the Future” episode): Lisa Simpson, the “first straight female president,” is elected in 2030—following in the footsteps of Donald Trump and Chastity Bono.

Iron Sky (2012 movie): An unnamed Sarah Palin spoof (Stephanie Paul) sends a black model to the moon as a publicity stunt to get herself reelected—and later leads an attack on a Nazi moon base.

Veep (TV series, 2012-present): Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) starts this HBO comedy series as a perpetually dysfunctional vice president. She moves up during season three, after her boss resigns to care for his mentally ill wife.

Special Report: Journey to Mars (1996 TV movie)
President Elizabeth Richardson’s (Elizabeth Wilson) support of a Mars mission gets her reelected, but the mission is sabotaged. Crisis ensues.

24 (TV series, 2001-10):
Republican President Allison Taylor “has nothing to do with Hillary,” insists actress (and Hillary Clinton doppelganger) Cherry Jones. Nope. America’s first female president in this thriller series is “a combination of Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meier, and John Wayne.”

State of Affairs (TV series, 2014-2015): Before Sen. Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard) becomes America’s first black female president in this widely panned series, her son is killed by terrorists in Kabul.


Homeland (TV series, 2011-present): Sen. Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel of House of Cards) is elected president in the upcoming season of Showtime’s terrorism drama. Co-creator Alex Gansa says she’s basically a composite of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders. Keane “challenges the norms,” Homeland star Claire Danes noted in a live appearance, and “is a little scary for that reason.” You’ll catch some glimpses of her in the trailer.

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20 Female US Presidents, as Imagined by Hollywood

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Pentagon Won’t Prosecute Troops Involved in Deadly Strike on Afghan Doctors Without Borders Hospital

Mother Jones

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The Pentagon does not plan to prosecute any of the military personnel involved in a deadly airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan last fall.

The announcement came as the Pentagon released its investigation, which provided new details about the circumstances that led to the attack.

The incident, in which a US aircraft bombed a Doctors Without Borders medical facility continuously for at least 30 minutes, left 42 civilians dead—including medical staff and patients. The attack destroyed the main building, including the emergency room and intensive care unit. Some patients were burned alive in their hospital beds.

After a six-month investigation, the Pentagon concluded 16 service members, including one general officer, “failed to comply with the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement.”

Those individuals got administrative sanctions but will not face criminal charges, announced General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command.

Some were members of the air crew that carried out the strike and others were members of the Army Special Forces unit that called in air support. Five of the service members were ordered out of Afghanistan and the general officer was removed from command. Others were sent to counseling, ordered to take retraining courses, and issued letters of reprimand—which can prevent future promotions.

A Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières) official said the organization hasn’t had time to review the full investigation but the sanctions that have been announced so far are insufficient.

“The administrative punishments announced by the US today are out of proportion to the destruction of a protected medical facility, the deaths of 42 people, the wounding of dozens of others, and the total loss of vital medical services to hundreds of thousands of people,” Doctors Without Borders press officer Tim Shenk said in a statement.

“The lack of meaningful accountability sends a worrying signal to warring parties, and is unlikely to act as a deterrent against future violations of the rules of war,” he said.

The organization also renewed its call for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission into whether the incident constitutes a war crime. General Votel emphasized that the investigation concluded that no war crime had taken place because the targeting of the hospital had been unintentional. The report calls the bombing a “tragic incident” caused by “a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures.”

The investigation also revealed new details about the bombing:

The aircrew was supposed to be targeting a nearby building, which had been overrun by Taliban fighters.
When the crew was en route to its target in Kunduz, the aircraft flew off course.
Due to technological and communication failures, the air and ground crew mistakenly identified the hospital as the intended target.
Even though the hospital was on the military’s no-strike list, the aircrew didn’t have access to that list during their flight.

The US government also announced that it has offered condolence payments to more than 170 individuals and families affected by the strike, and the Department of Defense has committed to spend $5.7 million to help rebuild the hospital.

You can read the Pentagon’s summary of its findings here.

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Pentagon Won’t Prosecute Troops Involved in Deadly Strike on Afghan Doctors Without Borders Hospital

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Bowe Bergdahl Ordered to Face Court Martial

Mother Jones

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Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant whose 2014 release by the Taliban prompted a firestorm of controversy over the nature of his five-year captivity, was ordered by a high-ranking Army commander on Monday to face a court martial on charges of desertion and endangering his fellow soldiers.

If convicted of leaving his post in Afghanistan without permission, the New York Times reports, Bergdahl could face a life sentence. The date of the hearing will be announced at a later time.

An Army lawyer had previously recommended Bergdahl face lesser charges for his alleged offenses. The decision on Monday also comes just days after the popular podcast Serial launched its second season, which will investigate Bergdahl’s divisive story.

In 2014, five Taliban leaders were released in exchange for the Taliban’s release of Bergdahl.

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Bowe Bergdahl Ordered to Face Court Martial

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I Hung Out With the Prisoners Who Fight California’s Wildfires

Mother Jones

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On the main road through Lower Lake, a town of 1,294 people in the heart of Northern California’s Lake County, spray-painted signs reading, “THANK YOU FIREFIGHTERS!” hang from fences and windows. Over the past month, the town, just north of Napa’s vineyards and south of the forests of Mendocino, has seen two of the biggest fires in the state’s recent history decimate roughly 70,00 acres of land.

The fires are mostly out now, but in recent media coverage of them, a surprising statistic came out: More than 30 percent of California’s wildfire fighters are state prisoners—low-level felons who volunteered to spend their sentences doing the manual labor of forest fire prevention and response rather than remaining behind bars.

The roughly 4,000 inmate firefighters receive a sentence reduction and $1 per hour while fighting fires, saving the state $80 million per year. After passing a physical exam and going through the same two-week training course that civilian firefighters do, they’re sent to one of 44 “fire camps” across the state—barracks-style quarters that serve as a home base from which to fight fires. Last week, I went to check out the camp in Lower Lake, called Konocti Camp.

A “thank you” sign in front of a Lower Lake sandwich shop. All photos by Julia Lurie

Konocti Camp’s yurts, where inmates who traveled from other camps slept during the Rocky and Jerusalem fires.

The first thing I noticed about Konocti was that it doesn’t feel like a normal prison. There are no fences or barbed wire around the perimeter, which separates the camp from nearby vineyards. Inmates wander freely within the camp during their leisure time; they line up to be counted every two hours. There’s an outdoor gym area, a rec room, an arts and crafts room (complete with hand saws), and a garden that grows much of the cafeteria’s produce. When there’s a big fire nearby, inmates from other fire camps come to stay, sleeping in yurts spread across the fields.

Escape attempts are exceedingly rare; prisoners know that if they misbehave, they’ll be sent back to a typical prison. “I’m trying to do everything right to stay here,” one inmate told me. (That said, attempts do happen. Last week, a juvenile in a similar program in Washington shot himself with a stolen gun after escaping from a fire camp.)

Konocti camp commander Jeff Auzenne worked for more than a decade as a state prison guard before coming to Konocti. “Inside the walls, you don’t really see a difference in these guys as far as their attitudes, and who you can help and who you can’t help,” he says. “Here, you see a lot of potential in these guys, and you can tell the guys you can really help.”

Inmates work out during their free time.

â&#128;&#139;Inmates line up to be counted at noon.

The fires have been so extreme this year that inmates from other states have come to help fight them. Above, inmates from a Nevada fire crew wait to hear if they will stay at camp or move to another fire.

Inmates are divided into fire teams, groups of about 15 people who live and work together. When fighting an active fire, the teams rotate through 24-hour shifts, primarily cutting “fire lines,” or four-foot-wide trails of dirt through vegetation on the edge of the fire to contain the blaze. They use hand tools and typically go where bulldozers can’t—which is to say, on steep inclines and dense terrain.

Members each have roles named after the tools they use, from the “saw,” who cuts down vegetation with a chainsaw, to the “Pulaskis,” who break down the wood with Pulaski pickaxes. At the camp, the teams are supervised by prison guards, but at fires, they’re overseen by Cal Fire captains. “It’s more unity here than it would be in the yard because we’ve gotta work together,” says Norbert Wilson, in charge of a Pulaski. “It’s kind of a brother bond.”

Norbert Wilson, second from the left on the top row, is in charge of cutting up vegetation with a pickaxe.

I was surprised by how few black inmates I saw, given that African Americans make up 30 percent of the prison population in California. Bill, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says the agency doesn’t keep track of the racial breakdown of the camps because it changes so often. “I’ve never paid much attention to the ethnic background of the firefighters when I’ve been at a camp,” he wrote in an email. “Their ability and willingness to do the job is the most influential factor in who is there…Remember, they all volunteer.”

From camp, I tagged along with a fire crew as they worked through the afternoon in a spot near the recent fires, doing fire prevention work. They completed tasks like widening roads or cutting away dry vegetation from particularly risky areas.

A hill in Lake county that was scorched by the Rocky Fire earlier this month.

Each fire team has at least one chainsaw to cut down vegetation. While working, crews are overseen by fire captains, not prison guards.

Inmate firefighters cut down a dead tree.

Inmates hand dead vegetation down the fire team line.

Inmates stand in line while sipping Gatorade at the end of the work day.

The work, both on active fires and on a normal prevention day, is exhausting and unrelenting. “For my first fire, it took us three and half hours, switchbacks, to the top of the mountain,” says Robert Gabriel, an inmate from East Los Angeles. “Once we got there, it was just torching.” The chief told them they could take a quick nap if they wanted, but Gabriel thought, “I’m not even gonna close my eyes, man!” He adds, “There are times where it’s like, ‘Man, did I really sign up for this?'”

Still, the inmates I spoke with unanimously said they would rather be at fire camp than in a typical prison. “Not having the locked door, and being able to go out and play pool, shoot hoops—it’s just a closer step to freedom,” says Gabriel.

Inmates Robert Gabriel and Samuel Serna take a break from their work.

Some inmates work full time in a handful of coveted, camp-only positions—cooking, cleaning, and otherwise keeping up the camp. Keith Collier, an inmate from Hayward, California, works in the camp’s wastewater treatment plant, doing a similar job to what he did before he was sent to prison for five years for a DUI. “I was able to continue my career here,” he tells me. “That’s the whole reason I came to this camp.”

Keith Collier works in the camp’s wastewater treatment plant. He’ll return to his family in Hayward, California, next week.

Rudy Quintanilla is the head gardener at the camp, growing a variety of produce used in the kitchen, from tomatoes and peppers to melons and pumpkins. “I’ve been in the camp so long that I know what type of tomato calls for what type of recipe,” he says, showing me the camp’s many varieties of tomatoes.

A landscaper before he went to prison, also for a DUI, Quintanilla says he plans to keep up landscaping when he leaves.

Rudy Quintanilla is in charge of the garden, which cuts the camp’s food costs.

Inmates sit down for hot meals at breakfast and dinner, and the food comes in massive servings to keep them energized. Food is notoriously better at camp than in normal prisons.

California inmates serve dinner to the fire team from Nevada.

When a camp expands during a fire, inmates eat outside.

Benjamin, a cook at the camp, preps for tonight’s meal: fried chicken and corn.

When I met Benjamin, the head cook, he was preparing for the night’s dinner: fried chicken, corn on the cob, potato gratin, and ranch-style beans. Benjamin is in prison for burglary; before his incarceration, he was a chef at a Las Vegas casino.

Mid-conversation, he turned to the guard giving me a tour and smiled. “I got good news,” he said. “I’m going home, man! In a month.”

“Good for you,” said Commander Auzenne, who’d been giving me a tour. “Bad for us, good for him.”

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I Hung Out With the Prisoners Who Fight California’s Wildfires

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Obama Authorizes Air Strikes in Iraq: Will Americans be Evacuated?

Mother Jones

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On Thursday, as Islamic militants closed in on the Kurdish capital of Irbil, President Obama authorized targeted air strikes in Iraq if necessary to prevent the capture of the city, which is a base for US officials and foreign workers. “When the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action,” said Obama. He also pledged to provide humanitarian aid and to take steps to protect about 40,000 members of the Yazidi sect, who have fled their homes and have been trapped on nearby mountains.

The announcements came after fighters associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of at least one town within twenty miles of the city and reportedly seized a massive dam, which if breached could flood Mosul, a city of 1.5 million residents.

Throughout the decade following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish north has avoided much of the violence and chaos common in the south. As recently as June, the State Department noted that the region has been “more stable relative to the rest of Iraq in recent years.” That relative tranquility has not only drawn diplomats, oil workers, and US military personnel to Irbil: just last year, the New York Times called the city a “tourist boom town.” Should ISIS take Irbil, any foreigners left there would be at considerable risk.

US companies began pulling employees from Iraq before ISIS’s recent advances. According to the leader of Iraq’s state-run South Oil Company, ExxonMobil staged a “major evacuation” in mid-June and BP reportedly withdrew 20 percent of its staff. But over the last few days, companies have ramped up extractions from Kurdistan: on Thursday, Reuters reported that ExxonMobil is pulling its staff, and a Chevron spokeswomen told the Wall Street Journal the company had reduced its number of foreign workers in the region.

Even as ISIS made dramatic gains across Iraq in June and July, Irbil remained a safe haven. Refugees from elsewhere in northern Iraq streamed in, as did foreigners. Employees of Siemens Energy were evacuated to Irbil in mid-June amid a bloody battle for control of Baiji’s oil infrastructure. Earlier that month, the State Department relocated staffers from the embassy in Baghdad to consulates outside the capital, including the one in Irbil. But now, the situation has reversed: according to the New York Times, civilians are swamping Irbil’s airport, hoping to snag seats on flights to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways has canceled all flights to Irbil.

Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst, says that when US citizens are under threat, the State Department works quickly. And when it comes to the safety of diplomatic staff, “If they felt like the US consulate could fall, they would have evacuated,” he says. “They have an itchy finger especially after Benghazi, they’re not going to let Americans get chopped up and put on the Internet.”

While Obama said on Thursday night that protecting US military personnel, diplomats, and civilians living in Irbil is a priority, it’s unclear just how many Americans and other foreigners are present in the city, and what plans may be in place to evacuate them. A senior administration official told reporters late on Thursday that there was an “ongoing conversation” in the administration about evacuating its diplomats, but “given that we will make sure ISIS cannot approach Irbil, we’re very confident our consulate is safe.”

A Defense Department spokesman, Commander Bill Speaks, says that there is a Joint Operations Center in Irbil, with about 40 military personnel. He would not discuss contingency planning for any potential evacuation of US or non-US foreign citizens. Katherine Pfaff, a spokesperson for the US State Department, declined to provide the number of staff based in the Irbil consulate. “We have nothing to announce on possible evacuations,” she says.

According to Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was in Irbil in June, there’s not a huge American presence in the city, but it is home to some foreign diplomats and oil workers, with a couple of expat hotspots. He says that Kurdish officials “knew the fight was coming, they just didn’t know it was coming so quickly.”

David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, is on his way to Irbil on Sunday for a pre-planned research trip. He told Mother Jones from his hotel in Turkey that he has meetings scheduled with government officials and “as far as I know, everything is on track.”

“It’s a fast-moving, volatile situation,” he adds. “Unless something really unexpected happens, I think the Islamic State is going to be on the run.” He says he promised his daughters that he wouldn’t “do anything foolish.”

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Obama Authorizes Air Strikes in Iraq: Will Americans be Evacuated?

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