Trump blames California forest management for deadly fires - is he right?

Overwhelming majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a driving force of more intense wildfires is the climate crisis

Louise Boyle
New York
Tuesday 15 September 2020 14:58 BST
Wildfires in California

President Trump on Monday again pushed the claim that fires, like the dozens currently burning across the American West, are down to bad forest management while ignoring the climate crisis.

During a visit to California on Monday, the president flatly told officials that scientists have yet to prove there is a climate crisis while blaming fallen trees for the blazes which have left 35 people dead and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

“When trees fall down after a short period of time, they become very dry — really like a matchstick. And they can explode. Also leaves. When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the fires,” Mr Trump said.

So what actually causes the deadly fires? 

The climate crisis

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists are in agreement that although fires are part of the ecosystem in some regions, it is the climate crisis that is making them more frequent and more intense as conditions become hotter and drier.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked larger wildfires in the US to global heating from the burning of fossil fuels.

2020 has been one of the hottest years on record, including on the west coast.  Snow melting earlier in the year combined with drought and higher temperatures leads to drier soil and vegetation which is primed to burn. 

The last National Climate Assessment, produced by the federal government, linked “human-caused climate change” with wildfire increases.

In November, California technically enters its wet season.  However if rains fail to come, then strong winds can spread fires more easily as happening during 2018’s deadly Camp Fire.

The climate crisis is also impacting the jet stream, slowing down storms and meaning that dry periods can be extended. 

Forest management

President Trump is correct that forest management is important but it does not fully explain the devastation currently being wrought across California, Oregon and Washington states.

Ralph Propper, president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, told the Associated Press: “Raking the leaves and forest floors is really inane. That doesn’t make sense at all. 

"We’re seeing what was predicted, which is more extremes of weather.”

People who settled in California also brought invasive grasses which overwhelm native species and burn more quickly.

California Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged that his state had not done enough to manage forests and has acknowledged that more than a century of fire suppression has allowed fuel to build up.

Governor Newsom reminded Mr Trump with a colour-coded, handout of a piechart on Monday that 57 per cent of forests in California were under federal management - and just 3 per cent are state lands. 

“We come from a perspective humbly where we submit the science is in and observed evidence is self-evident: that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this,” Governor Newsom said.

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” Mr Trump said during the meeting. “I don’t think science knows.”

“Wildland-urban interface"

The stakes during wildfire season - which still hasn’t reached its peak - have been far greater in recent years as an increasing number of homes and businesses are built in areas known as the "wildland-urban interface” (WUI). 

This is particularly pronounced in California where housing developments are increasing in the WUI. 

More people are pushing out into wildfire-prone areas as population growth clashes with a housing shortage and an affordability issue, contributed to by the tech boom in northern California. 

Wires contributed to this report

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