Over in Paris, President Donald Trump has California — and the fires ravaging the state, one of which is now the most destructive in California’s history — on his mind. But it’s not sympathy for the eleven people killed or the thousands of homes destroyed that he’s focusing on.
On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted about the fires, blaming California’s “gross mismanagement of the forests” for the extent of the damages, and threatening to withhold federal funding if California does not “remedy” the situation.
It’s not clear if “Fed payments” refer to federal firefighting assistance funds, via the US Forest Service, to which the federal government recently directed additional funds for the purpose of fighting fires, to disaster relief funds promised by the White House as part of Friday’s state of emergency declaration, or to both.
There are three major fires currently raging in California: The Camp Fire, in the north, has killed nine people and destroyed thousands of properties, burning 100,000 acres, while the Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire in the south have burned 70,000 acres and 6,100 acres respectively, destroying more than 150 homes. Two people died in the Woolsey Fire overnight as it doubled in size. Statewide, more than 250,000 people have been forced to evacuate. Trump expressed no sympathy for those in the fires’ path, instead using the disasters to criticize the state’s environmental regulations.
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
Trump is right that these fires are exacerbated by humans, though he’s wrong about who or what is to blame: Wildfires are getting worse because of human activity, but not because of California’s forest management.
While wildfires are a normal phenomenon, that level of devastation is “hardly ‘natural’ — humans made them worse at every step.” Three human activities are exacerbating their outcomes,” as Vox’s Umair Irfan explained in September.
For one, humans keep starting them. A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science found that 84 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans, whether through downed power lines, careless campfires, or arson.
And once started, wildfires have become more damaging because we keep building in harm’s way:
Californians are drawn to views of mountains, forests, and grasslands. Their homes are cropping up ever closer to these features, which often have a propensity to burn. And picturesque places like Napa and Sonoma counties, which suffered immense fires in 2017, have some of the fastest-growing property values and highest-priced homes in the United States.
This proximity is part of what’s driving the death toll, and the embers haven’t discriminated between wealthy and poor Californians.
Nor does it help that humans keep changing the climate, Irfan noted:
There are some unique weather conditions that are driving the exceptionally swift California fires, like strong winds and high temperatures. But long-term trends linked to global warming also exacerbated this year’s fire season across the United States.
Trump has a history of blaming California for its fires
This is not the first time Trump has blamed California’s environmental policies for its wildfires.
During an October cabinet meeting, Trump said that “California’s a mess. We’re giving billions and billions of dollars for forest fires in California,” after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue briefed him on efforts to prevent the fires, according to the Hill.
The president claimed that California is leaving its old trees rotting and drying, returning repeatedly to the financial — not personal — costs: “It’s costing our country hundreds of billions of dollars because of incompetence in California. It’s hurting our budget.” As the Hill notes, California’s spent $773 million fighting fires in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, three times what it spent five years ago. The federal government chips in in the form of Interior Department and Forest Service firefighting and Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funding.
And in a now-deleted August tweet, Trump blamed “bad environmental laws” for the increase in damages, writing that “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!”
As Ifran wrote in response to these comments, even wildfire scientists had no idea what Trump was referring to then:
California has been parched from drought for years, so there isn’t a “massive amount of readily available water,” and what little moisture is available is closely tracked… This water also wouldn’t be all that useful for firefighters. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem, so the goal is to allow these fires to burn without threatening lives and property, and spraying water isn’t the main method for containing them.