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Trump blames fires, erroneously, on California forest management. Firefighters call it a 'shameful attack'

Trump blames fires, erroneously, on California forest management. Firefighters call it a 'shameful attack'
Firefighter Brittney Bebek, with LA City Station 93 puts out hot spots on Hitching Post Lane in Bell Canyon. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

California firefighters criticized President Trump for a tweet Saturday that incorrectly stated that this week’s devastating fires were the result of poor forest management.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” Trump wrote.

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It was not the first time Trump has blamed California for destructive wildfires with dubious claims.

California Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice said Trump was out of line.

"The president’s message attacking California and threatening to withhold aid to the victims of the cataclysmic fires is ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines,” Rice said in a statement.

"At this moment, thousands of our brother and sister firefighters are putting their lives on the line to protect the lives and property of thousands. Some of them are doing so even as their own homes lay in ruins. In my view, this shameful attack on California is an attack on all our courageous men and women on the front lines,” he added.

Trump said poor forest management policies caused the fires plaguing the state, even though the massive Woolsey fire didn’t occur in a forest.

The Woolsey fire started near Simi Valley in a hillside area next to the old Santa Susana Field Lab and quickly spread into nearby suburban communities.

Some firefighters took to social media to point out the distinction.

“Mr. President, with all due respect, you are wrong. The fires in So. Cal are urban interface fires and have NOTHING to do with forest management. Come to SoCal and learn the facts & help the victims,” the Pasadena Firefighters Assn. said on Twitter.

Experts have said forest management was not a factor in California’s two most destructive fires: the Camp, which has burned more than 6,000 structures this week in Paradise, and the Tubbs fire last year in wine country.

Forest thinning would not have stopped either fire. Fueled by dry grass growing amid scattered pine and oak trees, the Camp fire tore across land thinned by flames just 10 years ago. The Tubbs fire burned grassy oak woodlands, not timber land.

At a late-afternoon news conference Saturday on the Woolsey fire, state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) urged Trump to support California rather than make political comments.

“I would beg the president to pursue a major disaster declaration, and not make this a political incident,” he said. “We have many parties, many views out here. And this is really not about politics. It’s about people.”

Trump has threatened to cut off funding over fire policy before, but has never been specific. California officials have rejected his criticism and said he’s playing politics.

Environmentalists believe Trump is trying to use fire prevention as an excuse to raid California’s forests.

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In early August, Trump tweeted: “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”

The tweet tied fires that had been ravaging Northern California at the time to complaints by members of the state’s Republican congressional delegation about environmental protections that have reduced water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley agriculture.

Trump’s declaration was quickly disputed, with fire officials pointing out that that water is not used for firefighting and that there is no shortage of water available for firefighters. They also noted that water plays a relatively small role in wildland firefighting, which focuses primarily on fire breaks and fuel clearance.

“We’re having no problems as far as access to water supply,” Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in response to the president’s August tweet. “The problem is changing climate leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

In October, Trump once again leveled criticism at the state’s fire management strategy during a Cabinet meeting. The president again threatened to withhold unspecified funding from California.

“I say to the governor, or whoever is going to be the governor of California, you better get your act together,” Trump said. “We’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money we’re paying because of fires that should never be to the extent.”

The president added: “It’s a disgraceful thing. Old trees are sitting there, rotting and dry. And instead of cleaning it up, they don’t touch them.”

As with many things involving Trump, his attacks on California fire management sparked an intense Twitter debate Saturday.

“This is an absolutely heartless response. There aren’t even politics involved. Just good American families losing their homes as you tweet, evacuating into shelters,” wrote entertainer Katy Perry.

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