Assessing the Influence of Politics on California Wildfire Disaster Declaration Decisions at the County Level
Cuan, Shawna Gabriela Stapleton
California suffers from the highest number of wildfires in the United States and has overrun its wildfire-fighting budget every year for the past decade (Hubbard). To make matters worse, climate change impacts are lengthening the wildfire season and generating more severe wildfires, further stressing existing response capacity (Westerling et al. 940). The state has augmented its own response capacity with federal assistance through national disaster declarations (NDDs). While these declarations are intended to help states in need, recent studies suggest that the process has become highly politicized, and factors such as partisanship, reelection, and the state's electoral competitiveness have a disproportionate influence on presidential NDD decisions (Gasper and Reeves 1; Kriner and Reeves 1; Reeves 1142). Using California county-level data between 1992 and 2012, this thesis assesses the influence of gubernatorial and presidential partisanship, electoral cycles, and county-level electoral competitiveness on the likelihood that wildfires are declared national disasters. This study finds that political and electoral variables do influence presidential NDD decisions. However, the factors that influence presidential behavior and the governor's chances of receiving NDDs at the county level contradict the findings in the wider literature at the national level. Regardless, these results highlight a need for greater oversight and transparency in the allocation of federal resources under the NDD program. Without these checks, state policymakers might leverage political incentives to manipulate the NDD decision-making process, potentially depleting finite resources that may become further taxed by climate change.
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