A home is destroyed by the Hillside Fire in San Bernardino, Calififornia. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On California’s Fires, More Smoke and Mirrors From Trump

While the state smoldered, the president lashed out at Governor Newsom—and completely ignored the role played by climate change.

November 08, 2019

For hundreds of thousands of Californians in both the north and the south of the state, Sunday morning was fraught with a mixture of trauma, sadness, and anxiety. Returning to homes they had fled during devastating fires, they had to balance whatever relief or grief they felt upon surveying their neighborhoods with an understanding that the fall fire season—already predicted to be a severe one—was just getting underway.

President Trump, true to form, stepped in to make things worse. Instead of comfort and compassion, he offered rancor and retribution. In a series of early-morning tweets, he railed against the “terrible job of forest management” undertaken by California Governor Gavin Newsom, and then went on to literally threaten fire victims and evacuees with churlish suggestions that federal aid shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“Every year, as the fire’s [sic] rage & California burns, it is the same thing - and then [Newsom] comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help,” the president wrote. “No more. Get your act together Governor.”

This outburst, mind you, came shortly after Newsom made public statements graciously crediting the president—whom he described as a “partner”—for his assistance. “Every request we made of the Trump administration has been granted, and I just want to thank them again for moving expeditiously as they have to support our efforts here,” the governor had said on the prior Wednesday. Four days later, for whatever reason, the president made clear his wish to end the partnership, and on the sourest of notes.

It’s worth unpacking President Trump’s tweets to more fully understand the degree to which his ignorance and his petulance intertwine and support each other. First off, there’s his misplaced blame on state-directed forest management practices for these and other California wildfires. The fires in and around Los Angeles last week took place not in forested areas but among citrus and avocado groves, subdivisions, and suburbs; the worst of them, the Getty Fire, began alongside one of the busiest and most congested stretches of freeway in the country and quickly spread into the dense West Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood. And to the extent that forest management practices might contribute to those fires that do take place in wooded wilderness areas, the president should consider taking the matter up with the man staring back at him in the mirror: Of California’s nearly 33 million acres of forestland, the federal government owns 19 million acres.

In his fusillade of Sunday-morning tweets, President Trump again expressed his belief that California’s fires were a result of Governor Newsom’s refusal to rid the forest floor of dried and dead organic matter that can serve as fuel for a conflagration. “I told him from the first day we met that he must ‘clean’ his forest floors,” wrote Trump, referring presumably to his 2018 call for Newsom to do more “raking and cleaning” of the forest floor to remove flammable debris. (Trump said the idea had been given to him by President Sauli Niinistö of Finland; the Finnish leader later denied that he’d ever had any conversations about forest raking with Trump.) And while Trump isn’t wrong in believing that dead wood and dried leaves are flammable—as anyone who’s ever owned a fireplace could tell you—scientists and forestry experts have pointed out that the issue is, er, a bit more complicated than that.

The experts will also tell you that climate change is very much a factor in the spread and intensity of California’s fires. The primary culprit isn’t insufficient forest management, but heat. Increasingly warm temperatures over the course of long, dry summers—especially when combined with the accelerating factor of hot winds, such as the Santa Anas or the wind known as El Diablo—can have the effect of turning timber to tinder. In recent years California has seen a disturbingly steady rise in temperatures, paired with an equally troubling set of atmospheric patterns that are conducive to diminished rainfall. It’s no coincidence that 15 of the 20 largest fires in the state’s recorded history have taken place since 2000.

Access to facts such as these may have something to do with Gavin Newsom’s blunt rejoinder to President Trump’s reprehensible tweets. “You don’t believe in climate change,” the governor tweeted back just a few hours later on Sunday. “You are excused from this conversation.” In his terseness, Newsom managed to illuminate two important truths. One, the president of the United States has failed—once again—to rise to the occasion and act like a leader during a moment of genuine crisis; while Americans are grievously suffering, he has opted to sling insults and place blame. And two, sometimes it’s really no use trying to argue in any constructive way with a climate denier, which Donald Trump most certainly is. Once you realize that their views are rooted in ideology and that no amount of scientific proof will persuade them, every minute you spend trying to change their minds is a lost minute that you could have spent trying to solve the actual problem at hand.

A day later, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the United States was formalizing its pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, thus sealing America’s reputation as the only country in the world to refuse to take part in this historic, global, collaborative effort to fight catastrophic climate change  At the time of the announcement, California firefighters were reporting that they had mostly contained the two biggest fires—the Getty fire in the south and the Kincade fire in the north. But experts predict the region’s fall and winter will be warmer and drier than normal. Fire season is far from over.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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