On Sunday, while Southern California’s wildland firefighters dug line on the 10,000-acre Maria Fire and residents returned to their homes following mandatory evacuations, President Trump exercised his thumbs.
Gavin Newsom, the new Democratic governor of California, was quick to respond. “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation,” Newsome tweeted. Later, his office released a longer statement to The Washington Post: “We’re successfully waging war against thousands of fires started across the state in the last few weeks due to extreme weather created by climate change while Trump is conducting a full on assault against the antidotes.”
Fire season in Southern California is just beginning. The crucible of heat, dryness, and extreme winds that sparked hundreds of fires over the course of weeks is likely to continue through December. According to the latest National Interagency Coordination Center’s Predictive Services fire report, the causes are above-normal temperatures; decreased rainfall; strong winds whipped up by a “highly amplified” stationary pressure ridge; and higher sea surface temperatures over the Pacific Ocean. Warm the planet and California will burn.
The roots of California’s ongoing struggles with wildfire are enormously complex, even when they’re not politicized in a 140-word tweetstorm. People spend their lives studying these issues in order to understand them, and to explain them accurately to average Americans. I asked forestry scientists, environmental engineers, and emergency management experts to help fact check the President’s tweets. (The Department of the Interior could not be reached for comment.)
“The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management”
Purely by the numbers, California has fared better against wildfires during Newsom’s first year in office than it has for the past several years. In 2019, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has responded to 6,190 fires that have burned 198,392 acres across the state. By this time last year, 5,355 fires had burned 632,701 acres, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. The five-year average from January 1 to November 3 has been 5,382 fires burning 373,576 acres.
In 2019, three people have been killed by wildfires, and 22 have been injured. In 2018, perhaps the worst fire year on record, 93 people died; at least 80 people were injured. Still, the worst may be yet to come in 2019.
In March 2019, Newsom declared a wildfire state of emergency, months before wildfire season started. In October, Newsom signed a series of 22 bills that fund and improve “wildfire prevention, mitigation, and response,” and pledged $ 21 billion to help update utilities that have sparked some of the state’s largest fires. He even praised Donald Trump’s administration for its role in helping fight the largest wildfires in the state.
Still, Newsom is just part of the bigger picture. “Most of the forests in California are owned by the federal government,” said David Peterson, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Washington. “The state controls a relatively small amount of land. The governor has nothing to do with how those federal lands are managed.”
Indeed, 57 percent of California’s 33 million acres is managed by the federal government. By November 3, the total acreage burned in the state was almost perfectly split: 124,280 acres burned were federal, 126,069 were state.
“I told him from the first day we met that he must ‘clean’ his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him. Must also do burns and cut fire stoppers.”
Trump’s talking about his widely panned advice to Newsom after the 2018 Paradise fire to “take care of the floors of the forest” and to start “raking and cleaning and doing things” in order to prevent more fires.
“Trump got it partly right,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former wildland firefighter with a P.h.D. in environmental sociology and the founder of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, a fire policy advocacy group. “Much of the problem stems from past fire exclusion”—not letting natural fires burn—“and excess dead and down fuel.” Allowing fires to burn naturally, the idea goes, will eliminate excess fuel and keep fires from burning larger and hotter.
However, in Germany and several other nations that tried this extensive “cleaning” technique in the past, the massive amounts of work to literally cart away dead limbs throughout a forest wasn’t sustainable. Beside the enormous effort and cost, the Germans “realized they were just carting away all the nutrients the forest needed,” Ingalsbee said.
Peterson noted that federal budgets are so small for the American version of this type of thing—removing surface fuels via controlled burns and thinning dense forests via logging so that fires can’t reach their crown—that only 10 to 15 percent of lands that need it get it. “It’s the elephant in the room. We know what we need to do, and that it works. But we just don’t have the money.”
Both Ingalsbee and Peterson also noted that many of California’s worst fires have burned in brushy grassland, not forests.
“As for the environmentalists,” said Ingalsbee, “I’d hardly say that we’re his bosses. In fact, we have a real hard time getting any of our demands implemented.”
“Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $ $ $ help.”
In 2017, California spent nearly $ 1.8 billion dollars fighting wildfires; 2018 cost even more. The federal government refunds up to 75 percent of firefighting funds for the largest fires. (Trump tweeted about a year ago that he would pull funding to California’s wildfire problem if they didn’t “remedy” their “poor” forest management.) This year, the Trump administration has made federal funds available to help fight several of California’s biggest fires. Trump appears to also be talking about Federal Emergency Management Aid disaster recovery funding; early in 2019, FEMA approved $ 500 million in grants to help Californians affected by wildfire.
Last year, Congress passed a spending bill authorizing upwards of $ 2 billion in suppression funds to be used fighting wildfires, and which allows the Forest Service to tap into FEMA funds to fight fires. This sounds like progress. But maybe not. “It’s a huge waste of money in my opinion,” said Ingalsbee. “Better to spend that money on preventing burning, or helping people recover from burning. Hurling firefighters into the maw of these climate-driven wildfires is just burning cash. At some point the well will run dry.”
Though Trump has made it before, this is a serious threat. The ecosystem of emergency preparedness, response, and recovery for fires in California—like in many other states—is organized around federal funding. Local, county, and state governments rely on federal funding to save the day when things get especially bad. It’s unclear whether Trump can legally turn the money faucet off. But if he does, losing federal funding would be devastating.
“In order to punish Gavin Newsom and Democratic policies, Trump is punishing the whole state,” said Ingalsbee. “That’s 90 million citizens. And this is not just a California thing. It’s a national mobilization. The impacts will ripple out across the West, across the rest of the nation.”
“You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states.”
“That’s not true at all,” said Ingalsbee. “It’s true that California fires cause tremendous social costs. Homes burned, civilians killed. But we’re seeing very large fires all across the West.”
By October 1, 2.5 million acres had burned in Alaska in 2019, dwarfing California’s wildfire acreage.
Last year, California had by far the most acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, with 1.8 million acres burned. But other states also endured massive fires. In Idaho, 600,000 acres burned; nearly 500,000 burned in Colorado; 410,000 burned in Alaska.
California is unique among those states because of its Mediterranean climate—it’s extremely dry in the summer, and especially fire prone. “That has nothing to do with how its lands are managed,” Peterson said. “The fires are totally dependent on extreme weather events that occur.”
“Also, open up the ridiculously closed water lanes coming down from the North. Don’t pour it out into the Pacific Ocean. Should be done immediately. California desperately needs water, and you can have it now!”
“These fires are not caused or exacerbated by the operation of the large water systems,” said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. “And firefighters have not had a shortage of water.”
“Rivers have absolutely nothing to do with wildfires,” confirmed Peterson. “Wildfires have to do with three factors: sufficient flammable fuels, hot dry weather, and an ignition source.“
“Here’s what everyone needs to know: wherever people live in fire-prone areas, they need to learn how to live with fire. There’s no easy fix here. We have to make communities more fire safe, and have evacuation plans, and we need to have structures that are resistant to fire. This is not something the government is going to save people from.”
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