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Trump blames California for wildfires and claims he will withhold FEMA aid for victims

In a tweet, the president implied California’s forest managers could have prevented the state’s record fires in 2018.

Trump surveys damage from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest fire on record, with then Governor-elect Gavin Newsom (left) on on November 17, 2018. Trump has blamed the state’s forest management for the fire even though the federal government owns most
Trump surveys damage from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest fire on record, with then Governor-elect Gavin Newsom (left) on November 17, 2018. Trump has blamed the state’s forest management for the fire even though the federal government owns most of the state’s forests.
Paul Kitagaki Jr.-Pool/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

President Donald Trump lashed out at the state of California again on Wednesday, this time blaming forest managers for recent wildfire tragedies, including the Camp Fire, which resulted in 86 deaths.

In a tweet, he also said he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withhold funding from the state “[u]nless they get their act together.”

(He posted the tweet after deleting an earlier one where he misspelled “forest” twice.)

While it’s true that active forest management is something many land managers have called for to reduce fire risk, Trump is utterly off base in claiming the fires in California “would never happen” if the state used federal funding for “proper forest management.” Wildfires are a natural and integral part of Western forest ecosystems. In fact, decades of fire suppression is part of the reason why fuel has accumulated so much, increasing the risks of major fires.

Humans are heightening fire risk in California, but not in the way Trump suggests. People are living increasingly close to forested areas, increasing the likelihood of ignition and more extensive damage. And people are changing the climate, which has caused forests to dry out, making them drier and more vulnerable to infestation from pests like bark beetles. Heat, drought, and beetles have combined to kill off more than 129 million trees throughout California. (Trump has consistently dismissed climate change as a factor in these fires and as a threat more generally.)

The tweet also blames the state of California for poorly managing its forests. Yet this is based on a major misunderstanding: The federal government owns and manages 57 percent of the state’s 33 million acres of forest land, while the state manages only about 3 percent.

And as of October 2018, the US Forest Service had only been able to reduce fire risk with prescribed burns and thinning on 235,000 acres in California, leaving millions of acres untended. The majority of the burned area in 2018 was on federal land, and the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest and most destructive fire on record, was likely ignited by power lines on federal land.

It’s notable that US Forest Service is part of the US Department of Agriculture, which is currently shut down. The forest service in recent years has spent more than half its budget fighting fires, leaving little leftover for fire prevention and forest management. The Trump administration has proposed cutting the forest service’s budget, including zeroing out critical fire research programs.

Also, it’s bizarre, and cruel, to link FEMA aid with federal forest management. Trump has already issued a disaster declaration for the 2018 wildfires in California, and FEMA is managing relief operations for the thousands of people left homeless, providing emergency housing, food, and water. The town of Paradise, California, once home to 26,000 people, was almost completely destroyed.

California as a whole is facing a severe housing shortage, so many of the victims are counting on FEMA for temporary and transitional housing. The agency has disbursed more than $48 million in disaster assistance throughout California, and it’s not clear he can actually withhold any funding at this point, with the disaster declaration already made.

It’s not the first time Trump has said something baffling about California’s fires. He’s said that California needs to rake its forests, an idea he claims to have learned from the president of Finland. (Finnish President Sauli Niinisto denied talking about raking with Trump.)

Trump has also blamed “bad environmental laws” for wildfires and said that California is diverting too much of its water into the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for the fires.

Wednesday’s tweet wasn’t even the first time Trump’s threatened to withhold federal aid. So why is Trump tweeting about this now? It’s not clear, but right-wing media channel One America News ran a segment Wednesday morning noting that the Camp Fire was one of the most destructive events in 2018, leading to $16.5 billion in damages:

For its part, California is taking more steps to address wildfires. Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two executive orders relating to fires on his second day in office. One allows state agencies to consult with private groups to deploy the best fire prevention and firefighting tactics. The other requests a report from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection about ways to cut red tape in reducing fire risks. The governor also proposed another $305 million to bolster the state’s capacity to respond to disasters.

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