California wildfires: Why Trump's claim 'forest management' is to blame is completely wrong - and why he'll keep saying it

  1. What did Trump say?
  2. What is forest management?
  3. Is Trump right?
  4. Why might he express this point of view?
Joe Sommerlad
Monday 12 November 2018 17:41 GMT
A firefighter battles the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California
A firefighter battles the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California(Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Three separate wildfires raging in California have killed at least 31 people and as many as 200 more are currently missing while firefighters battle to contain the disaster.

The Camp Fire in the north of the state has burned 108,000 acres of land so far and is among deadliest in California history, while the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles has claimed 83,275 acres and the Hill Fire in Ventura County scorched 4,531 more.

As many as 300,000 people have been forced to flee the apocalyptic scenes, many of them leaving behind family homes doomed to be consumed by the flames.

Against this backdrop, Donald Trump has exacerbated a situation in which emotions were already running high with a series to tweets blaming the infernos on the “gross mismanagement” of state forests at the hands of administrators.

The president’s insensitive response to the tragedy has drawn an angry reaction from local residents, opposition politicians and environmental scientists alike.

  1. What did Trump say?

    Taking time out from his visit to Europe to attend Armistice Day memorials to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, the US president posted his latest tweet about the wildfires on Saturday.

    “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he wrote.

    “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!”

    When the post threatening to withdraw funding was met with widespread condemnation from experts, rivals and influential celebrities like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Neil Young, the president repeated his attack on Twitter on Remembrance Sunday.

    “With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get smart!”

    In another tweet, since deleted, he wrote: “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!”

  2. What is forest management?

    Mr Trump was referring to the process by which woodlands are tended, harvested and encouraged to regenerate by local environmental agencies.

    The work of these bodies, responsible for general managerial oversight, involves strategic timber felling, planting new species and clearing pathways for visitors.

    In addition to balancing the needs of economic initiatives like logging with sustainable conservation practices, forest management authorities are also responsible for preventing and containing fires.

    This might involve the digging of fire lines, effectively waterless moats to separate blocks of trees, and extinguishing blazes when they erupt.

  3. Is Trump right?

    The president has been attacked by his opponents both for politicising a natural disaster and for refusing to engage with overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is to blame for the extent of the devastation, not mismanagement.

    The Pasadena Fire Association meanwhile tweeted: “Mr. President, with all due respect, you are wrong. The fires in So. Cal are urban interface fires and have NOTHING to do with forest management. Come to SoCal and learn the facts & help the victims.”

    Camp fire: Video shows 'firenado' raging during California wildfire

    Speaking for the emergency services personnel on the ground, the president of the California Professional Firefighters union commented: “Wildfires are sparked and spread not only in forested areas but in populated areas and open fields fuelled by parched vegetation, high winds, low humidity and geography.

    “Moreover, nearly 60 per cent of California forests are under federal management, and another two-thirds under private control. It is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California,” Brian K Rice said.

    Mr Rice further branded Mr Trump’s assertion “ill-timed, ill-informed and demeaning to those who are suffering” as well as “dangerously wrong” in conversation with CNN.

    Among the celebrities weighing in was Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, known for his environmental activism: “The reason these wildfires have worsened is because of climate change and a historic drought. Helping victims and fire relief efforts in our state should not be a partisan issue.”

    California has recently suffered a five-year drought, meaning the dry condition of brush lining forest floors serves as an ideal fuel for wildfires. Although these occur naturally as part of the lifecycle of any woodland, their increasing prevalence in California in recent decades serves as an ever-more convincing argument for global warming.

    High pressure 70mph winds sweeping down from the mountains and desert-standard levels of humidity have further encouraged the spread of the current blazes, picking up embers and making new flare-ups more difficult to contain.

    CNN meteorologist Tom Sater points to these Santa Ana winds playing a role in the disaster, which are keeping rain from the Pacific at bay and mean the expected October rainfall has not happened this year, as suggesting “the fingerprints of climate change”.

    “This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal. The chickens are coming home to roost, this is real here,” agrees state governor Jerry Brown.

    While Mr Trump might broadly be right to say more needs to be done to clear dead forest to prevent this tinder box effect from taking place, this has little bearing on the situation in the beach resort community of Malibu and enacting such a programme is difficult without the proper resources in place.

    Further withdrawing federal funding seems unlikely to help the situation and Mr Trump’s threat has been likened to defunding the National Hurricane Centre until the hurricanes go away.

    His suggestion that a lack of access to water is hindering firefighters was also dismissed by Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, observing that planes seeking bodies of water to scoop up and dump over the flames have no shortage of rivers, lakes and ponds at their disposal.

    Chemical retardants are more commonly used for the purpose these days in any event.

  4. Why might he express this point of view?

    The president has long expressed doubts about climate change and infamously pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris Accord. His search for alternative explanations behind the California fires is entirely consistent with that stance.

    Critics suggest his rejection of the evidence has more to do with opposition to potentially restrictive environmental legislation hindering lucrative business opportunities than a heartfelt scepticism about the prospect of global warming.

    Accusing California of mismanaging the situation would provide a platform for him to further reduce federal funding the state’s forestry authorities – as he has threatened – and, perhaps, make the case for private enterprise stepping in in future, opening the door to commercial opportunity.

    This fear has been raised by California Democrats on social media, who believe the president harbours a special disdain for their state, which so roundly rejected him at the polls, hence his latest criticism of its running.

    Republican senator Cory Gardner has since moved to reassure the people of California, telling NBC’s Meet the Press: “That’s not going to happen.”

    Fellow senator Lindsey Graham concurred on CBS’s Face the Nation: “We do have a forest management problem all over the country that we need to address but California will receive the money they need.”

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    It should not be forgotten that the president is also adept in the art of distraction, as when he took a sudden interest in the plight of white farmers in South Africa this August at precisely the moment Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian election meddling was heating up.

    His fear-mongering over the migrant caravan during the midterms was another example of his seeking to steer the national debate to his advantage.

    Some will point to his attack on the “gross mismanagement” of California’s forests neatly moving the conversation on among some from last week’s scandal about the White House possibly sharing doctored footage of press corps reporter Jim Acosta to imply he shoved an intern seeking to remove his mic.

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