Busting Trump mythology on wildfires as more rage in California

Firefighters in California are counting the days until the end of the fire season, hoping for a much needed respite from an almost constant barrage of catastrophic fires over the last two years.

Smoke from the summer 2018 California wildfires. The Camp Fire, another dangerous and extremely fast-moving fire, is currently burning near Chico amidst record-dry vegetation conditions. The Hill and Woolsey fires are also gaining strength as residents continue to evacuate areas in Ventura and Los Angeles.

During that time, we’ve witnessed some of the largest and most costly fire seasons in history. Eight firefighters and 49 civilians lost their lives during the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons. The Carr fire alone cost more than $1.6 billion in insured losses and suppression costs.

The federal government has long played a productive role in partnering with Cal Fire, California’s state forestry and fire fighting agency, and local fire departments to combat fires and finance fire suppression and forest restoration. But President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have actively undermined this partnership over the last several months, pointing fingers and spreading misinformation.

Climate change will continue to increase fire risks in California and beyond in the coming years. Building resilient ecosystems and protecting lives and properties will require collaborative solutions that are grounded in reality.

Here are three wildfire myths sparked by Trump and Zinke that, just like fires, must be stopped before they spread.

“We’ve been held hostage by environmental terrorists.”

In August, while the Carr Fire was still burning outside of Redding, California, Secretary Zinke blamed the fires on “environmental terrorists” whom he claimed prevented fuel reduction by blocking timber harvesting.If we’re going to prevent the catastrophic loss of life and property associated with future fires, we need to get the facts straight. Click To Tweet

It’s true that timber harvesting and other fuel reduction treatments like prescribed burns on federal and state land are subject to appeal and legal challenge, but appeals early in the fuel treatment era resulted in improvements in project design which have led to most current fuel treatment projects meeting the statutory requirements.

A much more significant barrier to fuel treatment is lack of funding.

Most wildfire “fuels” are comprised of small trees, shrubs, leaf litter and other vegetation that have little to no market value, so removing them via prescribed burns or heavy equipment is a pure cost with no economic return beyond the value of fire prevention. The gap between needed and actual fuel treatment costs is in the billions.

Environmental terrorists aren’t the ones adding fuel to the fires, but rather the policymakers who are not allocating sufficient funds for a variety of necessary fuel reduction treatments.

Photo Credit: Erick Pleitez

California’s wildfires are costing taxpayers “hundreds of billions of dollars.”

President Trump doubled down on claims that environmentalists were to blame for California wildfires, saying, “They don’t want to clean up their forests because they have environmental problems cleaning it up — it should be the opposite, you’re going to lose your forest, you’re going to lose it.”

In the same meeting, he also falsely stated that the federal government was spending “hundreds of billions of dollars” to put out fires in California, and threatened to withdraw federal financing if the state didn’t do more to combat fires.

In reality, the U.S. government has spent a sliver of that – approximately $1.4 billion – over the past two years dealing with wildfires in California. Much of that funding is to fight fires on federal land (45 percent of the state) for which California has no management authority or responsibility for fire suppression.

Water is “foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.”

Fire officials in California were dumbfounded by President Trump’s bizarre tweet claiming that officials were wasting water that could otherwise be used to put out fires.

To be clear, water is not a limiting factor in wildland fire suppression in California. Firefighters suppress wildland fires with a suite of tools that includes airdrops of water and fire retardant, cutting fire breaks by hand and with heavy equipment, and the use of backfires (fires that burn up fuel in front of advancing fires).

California officials were quick to respond to this nonsensical tweet.

Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, said, “We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

The Carr Fire that was burning at the time of Trump’s tweet was fanned by hot temperatures, dry vegetation and unusually high winds – all conditions that are exacerbated by climate change.

If we’re going to prevent the catastrophic loss of life and property associated with future fires, we need to get the facts straight, first.

It would also help if our federal leaders stopped pointing fingers and instead offered some support to the states and local communities suffering from frequent fires. Then maybe we can shift away from focusing so much on fire suppression and do more to prevent fires from occurring in the first place.

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  1. Posted November 9, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    If we had educated our youth about forest ecology, fire adaptation and wildfire management then we needn’t worry about Trump’s misinformation.

    Fortunately, I’ve been working on a video, with some success, about suburban forest fires, fire safety and the environment, for adult homeowners, since 1993. Several versions of the script, a chronology and links to our demo reel on YouTube, are posted to our web site.

    I have recently completed a video script for a STUDENT version that is designed to encourage kids to enter the training and education pipeline for the jobs that arise as we seek to prepare for, prevent and mitigate, the suburban forest fires of tomorrow.

    This script is available upon request. (65O) 274_27O9
    Your comments and criticisms are welcome.
    Referrals to teachers who might use this video in their grades 4-8 classrooms to teach earth science, would be most appreciated.

    Steve Kennedy
    Community Organizer
    The Cannonball Express

  2. gina mamelli
    Posted November 11, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    More rhetoric??‍♀️
    About OUR president?
    Clear the brush dammit!

  3. Posted November 13, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    President Trump is less wrong than you’re making it out to be, though he’s not entirely right either. Then, who could be in either a tweet or a quick press statement or response to one question among many within a fixed timeframe.

    Most fires in California DO start on some form of federal land. Duh! 60% of CA’s wild areas are under some form of federal management. But that doesn’t incur much in the way of costs or loss of property and life. What causes that is the mismanagement of forested lands under state management / control – especially private property when the state refuses to allow management to happen or, thanks to eco-tard lawsuits, even dig fire brakes during a fire in order to save property.

  4. Marvin White
    Posted November 14, 2018 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    reduction of fuel by prescribed burn is essensial in controlling wildfires. Also backburning is the only way to stop a major wildfire, which for some unknown reason, is not used in California. California people have not learned very much about how to live properly and manage properly in many ways, one is controlling fires and another is controlling traffic. You could not pay me enough money to live in that state.

  5. Michael
    Posted November 17, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    The California wildfires are a direct result to the Californian government not spending properly on forestry management…
    California is going bankrupt… sure it is the 6th largest GDP In the world, but it also runs one of the BIGGEST DEFFICETS as well. Always draining from the federal government and then blaming Washington, and especially Republicans. Why, because they cannot properly control their economy… California has the highest State I come tax… 13%… and one of the most expensive housing markets… now cities like San Francisco want to tax business more, and justify it because they just got a federal tax cut… to help pay for more stupid projects.. to clean up after homeless, not to help them not be homeless!

    Hypocrite that are part of the problem, and add more to the national debt than ANY other State!