President Donald Trump brought up on Tuesday the deadly wildfires that ravaged California last year and said, “we are finally starting to see some progress on better forest management,” during a speech in Iowa that was purportedly about renewable energy.
“Remember I went to California [last November], I saw something that nobody has ever seen — it was like a blowtorch,” Trump continued. “It was 80 mile an hour winds, and the death and destruction was incredible, and I said, ‘you need forest management.’ They were saying it was global warming. It could have had something to do with it, but you need forest management.”
Trump was doubling down on a flimsy talking point he first advanced last fall amid the historically devastating wildfires about poor forest management being responsible for wildfires. Not only that, but during his speech in Iowa, he went on to take a victory lap over California officials eventually admitting he was right all along.
There’s just one problem — that never happened.
Trump’s wildfire talking point, briefly debunked
As unscientific as it is, Trump’s talking point was useful for him on two fronts, as it allowed him to attack a blue state in which he’s unpopular while downplaying the impacts of climate change.
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
But Trump’s claim was swiftly and definitively debunked by fact-checkers and scientists who explained that not only has climate change has created conditions in California in which wildfires thrive, but also that a large portion of the affected area wasn’t a forest. To cite one notable example, University of New Mexico biology professor Matthew Hurteau wrote for a piece the Guardian explaining why Trump is wrong to minimize the role of climate change:
The severity of these fires is moderated by rain and snowfall. California’s Mediterranean climate means that the state receives heavy precipitation for only a few short months in the winter, and this is all that the vegetation has to tide it over until the winter storms begin the next year. As the temperature increases in spring and summer and plants use up the water stored in the soil, the amount of water held in plants decreases, making them more flammable. Similar to fire wood, the drier it is, the easier it burns.
Climate change is causing warmer temperatures, which dry out vegetation more. It is also causing winter precipitation to fall over a shorter period and the length of the fire season is increasing. Vegetation in California is increasingly primed for fire.
Trump, however, is not only pretending that he was right all along, but now he’s going even further and falsely claiming California officials were enlightened by and acted upon his unscientific analysis of the fires.
“You can’t let 15 and 20 years of leaves and broken trees and dead wood that after the first 18 months is dry as a bone — you can’t let that be there,” he said on Tuesday in Iowa. “You have to clean it, you have to clean those floors of the forest, and you’re gonna see a big difference.”
Trump went on to try and turn the tables on people who mocked him for his forest management comments (emphasis mine):
And actually, they mocked me. They said, “Oh what’s he doing, he’s talking about sweeping the floors.” Well, I don’t use the word “sweeping,” but you have to have forest management. And all of the sudden about four weeks after that happened they learned I was right. And now they are managing the forest at least as much as they could. They have a long way to go, because there’s a lot of it. But when you look, every year, year after year, you see California mostly burning down — it’s management. And I think they’re going to do a much better job.
Trump claims his widely mocked comments about how cause of wildfires in CA is poor forest management, not climate change, have been proven correct. (They haven't)— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 11, 2019
"All of the sudden about 4 weeks after [I said it] they learned I was right, and now they are managing the forest." pic.twitter.com/akq0pD7Xlb
It is true that informed people have legitimate concerns about forest management in California, including the clearing of dead trees from forests. But even experts who take those concerns seriously criticized Trump for trying to pin most of the blame for wildfires on management while ignoring the most significant underlying causes.
It’s not as though California policymakers had been ignoring forest management before Trump weighed in. As NBC reported last December, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) responded to a string of wildfires in 2017 by signing a series of bills “that will streamline regulations for thinning forests in fire zones, allow limited removal of some larger trees and force cities and counties to plan better defenses for individual properties and communities.” In other words, California officials were already doing what Trump demanded they do before he demanded it.
Trump has also congratulated himself this week over an immigration agreement with Mexico that mostly consists of vague assurances from the Mexican government to do things they had already committed to do. As this illustrates, Trump puts a premium on creating the perception of scoring wins, even if reality isn’t all that he cracks it up to be. Toward that end, in the case of wildfires, Trump is willing to go to the extent of putting words in the mouths of California officials.