The 2018 wildfire year has been devastating. As of Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center reports that there are 106 uncontained large fires across the country, with a total of 5.6 million acres ravaged by fire so far this year.
These deadly infernos have killed several firefighters, forced hundreds of people to flee, and destroyed hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of wilderness.
The Carr Fire in Northern California is now the state’s eigth-largest fire on record after igniting more than 207,000 acres and killing seven people. But it’s been bested in size by the Mendocino Complex fire, which, at 354,000 acres, is the largest in state history.
Late last month, President Trump signed a federal emergency declaration for the state of California, allowing the federal government to assist with firefighting efforts.
So it’s not surprising that Trump would weigh in on the California blazes. But earlier this month, he used them to bash environmental regulations:
California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2018
And then the next day, he took it up again, this time blaming California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water - Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2018
There are a few reasons these statements are bewildering. First, human activity is definitely making these fires worse: People are building in vulnerable areas, they are igniting most of these fires, and humans are driving climate change, which makes fire conditions more severe.
But environmental laws about water that would be used to put the fires out?
Even wildfire scientists have no idea what the president was referring to here. California has been parched from drought for years, so there isn’t a “massive amount of readily available water,” and what little moisture is available is closely tracked.
“We do manage all of our rivers in California, and all the water is allocated many times over. So I’m not sure what he was recommending,” LeRoy Westerling, a professor at the University of California Merced studying wildfires, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Even if we eliminated all habitat for riparian species and fish, and allowed saltwater intrusion into the delta and set up a sprinkler system over the state, that wouldn’t compensate for greater moisture loss from climate change.”
That means if California hoarded every raindrop, as Trump recommended, it still wouldn’t completely offset evaporation from rising average temperatures and years of drought.
Trump doubles down on his previous ignorant tweet about California #water and fires. The only water that reaches the ocean these days is what's left AFTER the massive diversions OUT of our rivers for cities and farms. And there's no shortage of fire-fighting water. Nuts. https://t.co/xWFeuoKv54— Peter Gleick (@PeterGleick) August 6, 2018
This water also wouldn’t be all that useful for firefighters. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem, so the goal is to allow these fires to burn without threatening lives and property, and spraying water isn’t the main method for containing them.
For wildland firefighters, the tools of the trade are Pulaskis, rakes, shovels, and flamethrowers that burn clearings ahead of towering infernos. Instead of fire engines, they use bulldozers. Since these firefighters aren’t usually using pump trucks and fire hoses, they aren’t limited by water. When they need to snuff out an area, they often do it by air.
These methods help firefighters clear a perimeter of potential fuel to control the spread of flames. But as Westerling added on Twitter, the president’s suggestion of “tree clear” only goes so far.
‘Tree clearing’ isn’t goint to help with the fires burning in grass and shrub fuels. But California is investing millions in fuels treatments funded by our carbon permit auction revenue. It would be wonderful if the Federal gov emulated us, since it owns most of the trees here https://t.co/4NJ1Qh54LE— A. LeRoy Westerling (@LeroyWesterling) August 6, 2018
There were indeed regulations that prevented firefighting equipment from being used, but officials say water rules are not hampering firefighting efforts. In fact, the largest fires in California right now have plenty of water nearby.
Scott McLean, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, pointed out to me that the Carr Fire burned around Shasta Lake and Whiskeytown Lake, while the Mendocino Complex Fire is roaring near Clear Lake.
For a state like California that’s facing increasing heat and more frequent weather whiplash between extreme rain and drought, the real “bad environmental laws” worsening the situation are actually Trump’s attempts to roll back policies — like California’s Clean Air Act waiver — that would help mitigate climate change and the threat of more wildfires.
Why is Trump suddenly so interested in California water policy anyway?
For one, it appears to be an opportunity to take a swing at the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, a vociferous critic of the president.
In this district, Mr. Nunes is more closely associated with campaigning for farmers on water issues than anything to do with Russia — pushing for more dams and trying to get more water from Northern California in the face of a shortage that many fear could turn into another drought.
His efforts have largely failed to solve the problem, which his Republican constituents here blame on environmentalists and Democrats in Sacramento, California’s capital, who they say are more interested in saving the smelt from extinction than serving the region’s farmers with enough water, an issue that President Trump took up during his campaign.
The fires may have given Nunes a reason to broach the topic to Trump, who turned to Twitter to vent and jab a political opponent at the same time.