California officials may have thought they could teach something about wildfires to President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke by walking them through the fire zones. It didn’t take long for their hopes to be dashed.
In an instantly viral statement after touring California’s scorched terrain, Trump asserted that the state needed to draw lessons from Finland’s woodland management methods. He said Finland focuses “on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem…. Or what it is it’s a small problem.”
Zinke, in an interview with Breitbart News on Sunday, doubled down on the Finland comparison, which proves nothing except that he’s a good soldier in the fact-free Trump army. “Look at Finland,” he said. “I had the opportunity to live in Germany....” (The shortest distance between Germany and Finland is about 900 miles, as the crow flies.)
Zinke also said, “It’s not time for finger-pointing,” before proceeding to point the finger at “radical environmentalists” who block forest-clearing projects because “they want nature to take its course…. I will lay this at the foot of these environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years and years and, you know what? This is on them.”
Trump and Zinke unwittingly were demonstrating the difference between ideas and ideologies. Ideas arise from observations from the real world. They require the application of critical intelligence. Ideologies, by contrast, are worldviews that adherents try to impose on reality. They often require a dulling of the intellect and a blindness to what is in front of one’s eyes.
Trump and Zinke have allowed a pro-business, anti-environmental ideology to blind them to the true causes of California’s wildfires. They sound like people who were given one fact to chew on as children and found it so simple and plausible that it drove every other notion out of their heads and has remained a bulwark against thought ever since.
So let’s take a look at the facts.
The core argument of Trump and Zinke is that California’s forests are overgrown because those radical environmentalists have blocked forest-clearing operations such as logging. The result is a buildup of fuel that turns the forests into tinderboxes.
As my colleague Bettina Boxall reported last week, overgrown forests may exist in some parts of the state, but that hasn’t played a role in the Camp or Woolsey fires, which have brought devastation and loss of life in Northern and Southern California in recent days. The fires have mostly swept across chaparral and grass, not forests. Indeed, “the wind-whipped Camp fire tore across areas that burned in 2008 lightning fires and were also later logged,” Boxall reported. “It is not fueled by heavy timber.”
The Woolsey fire, which has burned suburban areas from Oak Park to Malibu, was not near any forests, as my colleagues Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Joseph Serna observe.
Nor is the comparison to Finland apt. “Finland, perched far up in Northern Europe, could not be more different from California,” the Finnish author Anu Partanen noted in a Times op-ed. “Overall it is a cold, wet and dark place. Finland’s landscape is dotted with lakes and swamps, which act as natural barriers to fire.” Finland’s climate bears little resemblance to much of California’s, which is periodically swept by hot, dry, desiccating Santa Ana winds. Rainfall since May at Jarbo Gap in Butte County, near where the Camp fire started, was at 0.7 inches. During the same period, rainfall in Lapland, which suffered woodland fires this summer, was 15.76 inches.
This was not the first time that Trump referred to the necessity of clearing forests to stem wildfires. In August, following an earlier wildfire crisis, he called in a tweet to “tree clear to stop fire from spreading.”
He also blamed “bad environmental laws” for preventing “massive amounts of readily available water” to be applied to the fires. However, fire officials maintained then that there was no lack of water for firefighting.
In any case, California forest management policies aren’t as important in the state as federal policy. That’s because the largest owner of forestland in California is the federal government, with 57%. State and local agencies own 3%. The rest is in the hands of Native American tribes, corporations or families (most of whom own fewer than 50 acres).
The most important opposition to natural fire suppression—that is, “letting nature take its course” by periodic burning of overgrowth—comes not from environmentalists but from homeowners and real estate developers.
As housing close to metropolitan centers has become more expensive, households have become smaller and people gained the taste and resources for vacation homes in remote areas, residential encroachment into what planners call the wildland-urban interface has increased. According to figures from the 2010 census and other official sources, California has the largest number of houses in the interface, with 4.46 million — nearly 33% of all its housing — and the second-largest number of vacation or seasonal homes, with 204,000, just behind Florida.
The presence of residences in woodlands complicates fire policy. It forces fire authorities to take more stringent suppression measures rather than let the woods burn, and raises the cost of those measures. When a large percentage of this housing is seasonal, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the situation is especially complicated—seasonal homeowners can be hard to reach for the coordination of fire policy, and they may be less inclined than permanent residents to engage in the hard labor of clearing vegetation, cleaning gutters or taking other steps to make the homes fire-resistant.
In his Breitbart interview, Zinke bemoaned the cost of firefighting and the diversion of resources from other government projects. “Here’s an idea,” he said. “Why don’t we spend that money on building trails?… Why don’t we spend that money on visitor experience?”
That prompts us to look at how the government actually has spent money in the forests.
Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget called for a decrease of nearly $1 billion in funding, or more than 15.5%, for the U.S. Forest Service, to $5.1 billion. (The Forest Service is part of the USDA.) Wildland fire management received a modest proposed increase of about 8%, but the proposed budget for fire suppression fell by 6% and a federal fire suppression reserve was cut to zero from $342 million.
Trump also proposed cutting the Forest Service’s capital improvement budget by nearly 74%, reducing it to $95 million from $362 million. That spending covered road building to provide recreational access for hunting and fishing and for first responders to wildland fires—exactly the projects that Zinke said should get more funding.
At the Department of the Interior, Trump proposed cutting the appropriation for wildland fire management by more than 11%, to $482.3 million, with a reduction in staffing by 161, a cut of nearly 5%. This appropriation covers the reduction of vegetation that can contribute to the severity of wildfires and programs for fire management science.
One shouldn’t be surprised at the stubborn resistance to empirical facts shown by Trump and Zinke, even after they saw the consequences of their own policies directly and heard from actual experts. Both have expressed skepticism about the impact of climate change, plainly a contributor to the length and severity of California’s fire season.
Trump’s string of falsehoods and misconceptions about fire and water policy grows longer by the day. Zinke’s record on environmental issues is dismal; as a Republican congressman from Montana in 2015-2017, he notched a 4% rating from the League of Conservation Voters for voting consistently against legislation favoring clean air, clean water and conservation funding, and against measures to address climate change.