You know those wildfires California has been seeing this year, the record-breaking ones that have killed at least 31 people? Well, the Trump administration is rejecting the state’s request for disaster relief.
Last month, California officials asked the U.S. federal government for an emergency declaration of aid to help with their recovery process from six of its largest fires this year, including the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties, which is the biggest solo blaze in the state’s history. The fire season has also seen a number of fires merge into even larger complexes that have wrought massive damage. In a Sept. 28 letter, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expects the infrastructure damage from the fires in question — the Valley Fire in San Diego, the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, the Slater Fire in Siskiyou County, the Oak Fire in Mendocino County, the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles, and the Creek Fire — will surpass $US229 ($323) million.
“The longer it takes for California and its communities to recover, the more severe, devastating, and irreversible the economic impacts will be,” Newsom wrote.
The governor also said that the covid-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges to normal evacuation procedures due to the need for social distancing, making this fire season particularly costly. Rather than offering congregate shelters for evacuees, for instance, the state offered hotel rooms.
In August, the Trump administration did approve another major disaster declaration for California. But Trump has threatened to deny fire aid before. Last year, he tweeted that he’d halt all funds to the state “unless they get their act together, which is unlikely.” Federal officials have not clarified why they denied Newsom’s request this time around (not that I can really imagine a worthy excuse).
It’s no secret that Trump and Newsom have feuded over environmental issues in the past. But it’s worth noting that the Constitution’s tenth amendment prohibits the federal government from conditioning aid to states on their agreement with the administration’s politics.
When it comes to aid packages like the one California requested, “it’s not that unusual for there to be a denial for ‘smaller’ disasters” Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at University of Nebraska Omaha, said in a Twitter direct message. But for a disaster of this size — the six fires in question killed at least three people, scorched 728,000 hectares, and destroyed homes and livelihoods — the move seems unconscionable.
The president has repeatedly blamed bad forest management for the state’s unprecedented 2020 wildfires, and though it’s true that managed burns can help mitigate fire disasters, he has made it clear that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. When it comes to the impact of the climate crisis on the blazes, last month, Trump said he doesn’t “think science knows” what’s going on, despite mountains of evidence that science does, in fact, know.
More than 1.6 million hecatares of California have been scorched by wildfires this year, which is more than double the state’s previous record for area burned in one season. The season’s not over yet, either. As of Friday morning, the Creek Fire is still burning and is just 58% contained. Twenty other fires are still roaring across California, and forecasts call for elevated fire risk through December for parts of the state, including heavily populated areas in Southern California and the Bay Area. That raises the potential for more damage, which will cost money to repair. Even for the Trump administration, denying aid seems cruel.