“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!”
Trump’s discussions of the wildfires seem to involve little consideration of the science behind the fires, focusing instead on his view of the state as a political enemy that spearheads his opposition. Rather than worrying about troublesome facts or showing support for Americans in a disaster, he has taken the opportunity to score political points with his base. But in addition to the ethical problems with blaming a state in the midst of a deadly, large-scale natural disaster, the tweet involves factual ambiguities and inaccuracies that warrant close consideration.
California is facing three severely destructive wildfires, with nearly 250,000 people forced to evacuate across the state.
The Camp Fire in the north Is the largest of the three, reaching a total of 100,000 acres, and almost completely destroying Paradise, a town with a population of 27,000. It is the most destructive fire in the history of California.
Further south, the Woolsey Fire is nearly as large, burning 70,000 acres, and killing two. Trump is either ignoring the massive Woolsey Fire in his tweet, or is getting his facts wrong, since this fire did not occur in a forest, but instead in a hillside area, before quickly spreading to developed suburban areas.
In the past, Trump has claimed that the state is leaving old trees to rot and dry instead of removing them, and has made the puzzling and unsupported claim that the state is not using available water to stop the fires. He has since deleted a tweet from August that said:
“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!”
This comment conspicuously ignored California’s years-long drought, and also the fact that spraying water is not how firefighters aim to contain wildfires, which are a natural process and vital to the ecosystem. California’s rivers are not being “diverted to the Pacific,” but are instead flowing naturally with large amounts of water diverted to farms and cities. Experts have also said that forest management was not a factor in the Camp fire, or the Tubbs fire last year, California’s two most destructive fires. The Tubbs fire burned grassy oak woodlands rather than dense timber land, and the Camp fire was fueled by dry grass among sparse pine and oak trees, in forests that were thinned by another fire 10 years ago.
Human activities have played a role in California’s worsening wildfires, but not in the ways that Trump seems to be implying. A study in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science found that 84 percent of wildfires are initially ignited by humans, through campfires, downed power lines, or even arson. And as residential areas sprawl into grasslands and forests, structures are built that fuel the fires and put people in harm’s way. But Trump’s policies and comments do not suggest he is looking to limit development. Instead, he seems to be attacking environmental laws and forest management in an effort to paint environmental concerns as the source of the problem. If the state would only cut down more trees, and use more water, the fires wouldn’t be so bad.
Yet in reality, Trump is getting things backwards in an attempt to avoid talking about the elephant in the room, which is climate change. Likely the reason California’s wildfires are setting new records each year, climate change has led to hotter and drier conditions, projected to worsen by the state’s climate change assessment last August. These conditions play a huge role in the severity of wildfires. That assessment estimated that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the average area of wildfires will increase 77 percent by 2100.
Glenn MacDonald, a University of California Los Angeles geography professor, said to The Daily Beast:
“If you look at the 20 biggest fires in the state, 15 of those have happened since 2000. There are now bigger fires, and more and more record breakers coming in. Fire season is getting longer. We are also seeing record breaking temperatures. It is getting hotter and hotter. Spring starts earlier. Our fire season now goes into the winter.”
It’s hard to imagine Trump blaming local infrastructure for the damage during Hurricane Harvey in Texas, for example. Yet, it’s politically expedient for Trump to score points against California and environmental regulations, which the Trump administration has consistently targeted and aimed to roll back. In doing so, he is able to distract from the real problem of climate change while furthering his agenda of aggressive deregulation on climate and the environment.