At least nine people are known dead and over a quarter million have been evacuated as the combination of gale-force winds and microscopic humidity drive walls of flames across both ends of California. Whole communities have been burned down, residents have lost their lives on highways in desperate attempts to escape, and firefighters are desperately trying to contain some of the blazes on Saturday with higher winds expected again on Sunday.
Against this deadly inferno, with tens of thousands of emergency personal putting their lives on the line and the risk still growing, it might seem like the appropriate time for a leader to issue emergency orders freeing up more funds, sending in military forces to relieve weary first responders, offering every possible assistance to the nation’s most populous state at a time of utter disaster. That’s what a leader might do. If we had a leader.
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
Donald Trump’s only mention of the fires in California — his only mention — is a spiteful threat to cut off funding even as people are dying. During another round of fires in August, Trump made similar threats after demanding that California practice clear cutting to remove forests. But as the Sacramento Bee pointed out at the time, Trump has already slashed federal funds for forest management in California.
Trump obviously relishes the chance to tell California to go to hell—even when the people there are experiencing literal hell. And he probably thinks that his sneering at burning homes and dying children on the West Coast will play well in red states where they can think of better ways to spend the money that was collected from blue states. Just because California makes the biggest contribution to the federal budget by far doesn’t mean it should get anything back. What’s saving lives next to paying for subsidies on something that needs subsidies because of a Trump-imposed sanction?
Forty percent of the forest area in California is under the direct management of the federal government. Any failure to manage those acres over the last two years aren’t Jerry Brown’s failures — they’re failures of Ryan Zinke and Donald Trump.
The Trump administration’s own budget request for the current fiscal year and the coming one proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to the kind of tree clearing and other forest management work experts say is needed. And it’s just one example of how the federal government is still not prioritizing fire mitigation to the scale that is needed, according to forestry experts.
Trump is threatening to take away … money he’s already taking away. And while California has shouldered more and more of the burden of forest management, the Interior Department under Ryan Zinke has increasingly shirked that duty.
These fires aren’t raging because California has been pocketing funds. They’re causing record damage because climate conditions have changed. The intensification of wet and dry seasons means that periods of growth are followed by periods of gunpowder-dry conditions. One of the largest of the three fires currently tearing across the state is burning through, not dense forest, but grass, brush, and sapling growing on the track of a fire that cleared the same area in 2013. Even if California were to carry through with the idiocy of clear cutting forest areas, it would not mitigate the need for forest management to prevent fire.
The 2017 U.S. Forest Service Report, for example, noted that the federal government had “treated” only about a quarter of federal land that ought to be managed through forest thinning or controlled burns.
It’s Trump who is failing California. The state, along with individuals and groups like the Nature Conservancy, are already attempting to assist in managing federal areas, where the Forest Service has noted they “just don’t have the funds” to cover the problem.
And, as with everything else, Trump’s solution is to make the problem worse.