President Donald Trump travelled to Northern California this weekend to survey the area affected by the Camp Fire, which has become the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history. During the visit, the president appeared to double down on some of his previous rhetoric involving what he has described as forest mismanagement.
CNN reported Saturday that Trump toured properties in Paradise, the community of 27,000 that was nearly completely destroyed in the fire, before answering questions from reporters alongside Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, FEMA Administrator Brock Long, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Lieutenant Governor and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom.
Asked by a journalist about whether there was any way to prevent such an event from happening again, Trump responded that he (presumably meaning the federal government) and California officials would work together on “management” and “maintenance”. He also said that officials would work with environmental groups, adding: “I think everybody’s seen the light.” (It’s not clear what he meant.)
Then things got weird.
“We’ve gotta take care of the floors, you know, the floors of the forest. It’s very important,” he said. “You look at other countries where they do it differently and it’s a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he said, ‘We’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation. And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. And they don’t have any problem. And when it is, it’s a very small problem.”
Trump has consistently blamed the fires on “gross mismanagement” of California’s forests — an accusation disputed by experts and officials — and has suggested that he would pull federal funding from the state. The president doubled down on his previous comments about forest management on Friday, just one day before flying to California, in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
“I was watching the firemen the other day, and they were raking areas. They were raking areas where the fire was right over there,” he said gesturing to a corner of the room. “They’re raking trees, little trees like this that are nut trees, little bushes, that you could see are totally dry. Weeds. And they’re raking them, they’re on fire. That should have been all raked out.”
Asked by Wallace whether climate change factors like rising temperatures and extremely dry fuels could be causes (which they are), Trump said: “Maybe it contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management.”
As of Saturday, 71 people are dead and more than 1,000 are unaccounted for in the Camp Fire, which is still blazing in Northern California. The fire has burned 148,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and is 55 per cent contained more than a week after it began.
While it’s true that more could be done to reduce fire fuel loads on landscapes managed by the U.S. Forest Service — an aspect of the agency’s mission that has gone underfunded for years — experts have called Trump’s claims ill-informed and grossly oversimplified when it comes to California’s recent fires.
The New York Times reported that the area’s logging, which was intended in part to diminish such fire fuels, may have backfired. Chad Hanson, a fire ecologist at the John Muir Project, told the Times that when the fire reached the logged region, “it spread very rapidly and people just didn’t have much time to evacuate in Paradise, so this whole notion that logging—so-called hazardous fuels reduction — was going to save the town is a dangerous falsehood.”
One thing’s for sure: “Raking” isn’t going to solve California’s fire problem, and any suggestion that there’s any such quick and easy solution is at best delusional and at worst dangerous.