President Donald Trump is scorching the facts about California’s wildfires.
The president in recent tweets blamed California and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for the fires because of state forest management practices and said California’s fires were too expensive and worse than in other states. In fact, the fires were not raging mostly in forests. The bulk of California’s forests are also federally managed, and other parts of the U.S. are burning even more.
Four university professors who study fires and the environment faulted the president’s Sunday tweets to varying degrees.
TRUMP: “Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing—and then he (Newsom) comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states.”
THE FACTS: Not true. There are far fewer acres burned in California than other places, like Alaska.
So far this year, slightly more than 266,000 acres (108,000 hectares) of California have burned in more than 7,700 fires. That’s fewer than in recent years for California, but the fires command attention because they are close to people.
While Alaska has had only 700 fires, it has lost 2.57 million acres (1.04 million hectares) to wildfires this year, more than nine times as much as California, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Great Basin, Southern, and Southwestern regions have all had more than 440,000 acres (180,000 hectares) burned this year, far more than California.
“Fire is increasing everywhere because of climate change, but the impacts on people are more directly observable in California because of its population and wealth,” said LeRoy Westerling, a fire expert at the University of California, Merced.
California did have the most acres burned in 2018, but Montana and Nevada had more acres burned in 2017 and Oklahoma had the most acreage burned in 2016, while Alaska and Washington had more in 2015, according to fire center statistics.
TRUMP: “The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management. I told him from the first day we met he must ‘clean’ his forest floors, regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him. Must also do burns and cut fire stoppers.”
THE FACTS: Trump is sidestepping responsibility. Of the 33 million acres (13.3 million hectares) of forest land in California, 57% is owned and managed by the federal government, 40% by private landowners and 3% by the state, according to Newsom’s office, Forest Unlimited and the University of California’s Forest Research and Outreach center.
Many of the fires burning the past week or so are not in forests but shrub, agricultural areas and grasslands, so forest management is not an issue, University of Alberta fire expert Mike Flannigan said in an email.
Westerling showed pictures of the areas before the fire, illustrating mostly grass and shrub. It is not a forest, and clearing debris would be of little use there.
“Are there things California should be doing to reduce the risks?” asked Chris Field, director of the Stanford Wood Institute for the Environment. “Yes. I agree with the president that fuel reduction and fire breaks are important.
“But they are just the beginning. We also need to upgrade homes and businesses to make them more fire resistant, improve defensible spaces around buildings, and limit ignitions, including from downed power lines.”
The recent Tick and Maria fires in Southern California were mainly in chaparral and grassland. In such habitats, Field said, “widespread fuel reduction doesn’t provide a benefit, but defensible spaces and modern building codes can be hugely helpful.”
While California is increasing its spending for reducing fuels for fire by about $200 million for five years, federal officials are crying for money, Westerling said.
The National Forest Service’s California office says it needs $300 million more a year to meet its goal of restoring 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) per year, up from 200,000 acres annually.
TRUMP: “Also, open up the ridiculously closed water lanes coming down from the North. Don’t pour it out into the Pacific Ocean. Should be done immediately. California desperately needs water, and you can have it now!”
THE FACTS: Trump’s point is irrelevant to battling wildfires.
“Fire suppression is not limited in any way by the availability of water,” Westerling said. “How does President Trump propose that these waters be used to reduce fire risk? Is he proposing to build a statewide sprinkler system with federal money?”
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