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President expands on comments about California fire; science contradicts him

by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today |

Several times over the last month President Trump has expressed his opinions about wildland fire management. On two occasions he said forests were being mismanaged in California, but did not specify exactly how, or if he was referring to the half of the forested land in the state that is managed by the federal government, or possibly the state managed lands, or private property. He also threatened twice to cut funding in the state because “forest management is so poor,” but it was not clear what funds he wants to reduce.

Mr. Trump expanded on his wildfire management opinions in a lengthy interview Nov. 27 with two reporters from the Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey.

Below is what he said to them about fires, according to the Post:

“The fire in California, where I was, if you looked at the floor, the floor of the fire they have trees that were fallen, they did no forest management, no forest maintenance, and you can light – you can take a match like this and light a tree trunk when that thing is laying there for more than 14 or 15 months. And it’s a massive problem in California. … You go to other places where they have denser trees – it’s more dense, where the trees are more flammable – they don’t have forest fires like this, because they maintain. And it was very interesting, I was watching the firemen and they’re raking brush – you know the tumbleweed and brush and all this stuff that’s growing underneath. It’s on fire and they’re raking it working so hard, and they’re raking all this stuff. If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire. It’s very interesting to see. A lot of the trees, they took tremendous burn at the bottom, but they didn’t catch on fire. The bottom is all burned but they didn’t catch on fire because they sucked the water, they’re wet. You need forest management, and they don’t have it.”

This quote was in the Post’s Fact Checker column, written by  Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo, in which they checked a number of statements made in the interview. Here is what Kessler and Rizzo determined:

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Experts say the most recent wildfires besetting California were not sparked by forest management problems such as an overpopulation of trees or a lack of raking. (Trump previously said the president of Finland once told him they avoid forest fires by raking the ground, but the Finnish president denied saying this.)

“The ones in Southern California are burning in chaparral, so it’s not a forest management issue at all,” LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire researcher at the University of California at Merced, told us in a previous fact-check. “The fire in Northern California didn’t start in forest; it started in other types of vegetation, from what I read. ... There, you’re talking about what kind of vegetation people manage on their homes on private properties.”

Some California forests appear to have many more trees per acre than what is considered healthy, according to an expert cited by the San Francisco Chronicle. But more than half of the state’s forested land is managed by the federal government. Because of “the rising costs of fighting fires,” the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to “regularly raid its $600 million budget for forest management,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

The scientific consensus is that climate change is the big driver of these intensifying wildfires, although other factors such as forest management play a (smaller) role. Trump is not convinced that global warming is an issue, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus and reports from his own administration.

A 2016 study of western U.S. forests published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.”

“We estimate that human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million [hectares] of forest fire area during 1984-2015, nearly doubling the forest fire area expected in its absence,” authors John T. Abatzoglou and A. Park Williams wrote. “Natural climate variability will continue to alternate between modulating and compounding anthropogenic increases in fuel aridity, but anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity and should continue to do so while fuels are not limiting.”

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This reminds me of how fictional President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet of the TV series The West Wing handled a controversial wildfire issue. (Spoiler: It was very different.)