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California fires: Trump administration now blames devastation on ‘radical environmentalists’

California fires: Trump administration now blames devastation on ‘radical environmentalists’
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke views damage at Paradise Elementary School. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The political battle between the Trump administration and California over blame for the the devastating wildfires that have killed scores and left nearly 1,000 missing continued Monday.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed the state’s fires on “radical environmentalists” who he said have prevented forest management.

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His comments come days after he and President Trump toured the devastation from Paradise to Malibu, with both vowing to help California recover from the disaster.

In an interview with Breitbart News, Zinke said he agrees with Trump’s comments about the fires being a result of poor forest management, and repeatedly said radical environmentalists were responsible for the destruction caused by the fires.

“It's not time for finger-pointing,” Zinke said. “We know the problem. It’s been years of neglect, and in many cases it’s been these radical environmentalists that want nature to take its course.…You know what? This is on them.”

He said the damage he saw during his visit to California was unlike anything he had seen before.

Trump had threatened to withdraw federal funding from California, erroneously blaming poor forest management for the fires.

Experts agree that overgrown forests in California pose a heightened wildfire threat in some parts of the Sierra Nevada. But although Paradise is near forestland, the wind-whipped Camp fire tore across areas that burned in lightning fires in 2008 and were later logged. It was not fueled by heavy timber.

“It started out as a vegetation fire. When it reached the incorporated area, which is definitely a lot more urban and developed of an area,” Jonathan Pangburn, a fire behavior analyst for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an interview last week, “it turned into a building-to-building fire ... no longer carrying through most of the vegetation, especially in the upper canopies in the trees. It was not a crown fire through the Paradise area.”

The Woolsey fire, which burned suburban areas from Oak Park to Malibu, was not near any forests. It destroyed 1,500 structures and left three people dead.

Over the weekend during his California tour, Trump took a more conciliatory tone.

The president walked alongside Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom during his tour of areas affected by the fires, despite loudly criticizing Brown on climate change and environmental regulations.

“I’ve known Jerry for a long time, but I think we’ve gotten closer today than we’ve got over the last 20 years,” Trump said during his visit. “We both want to come to the right conclusion. And the right conclusion is we have to get these forest fires to stop.”

The president also cited Finland as an example of a country with good forest management, saying it focuses “on raking and cleaning. They don’t have any problem.”

Experts were quick to note that Finland fires are much different from California fires.

A heat wave this summer caused huge forest fires across Europe, including Finland. Fires scorched forested areas in Lapland, a remote northern province near Finland’s border with Russia, forcing evacuations of summer cottages.

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One big difference: Rainfall since May at Jarbo Gap in Butte County, near where the Camp fire started, was at 0.7 inches. The May-November rainfall in Rovaniemi, Lapland’s capital: 15.76 inches.

Finland and California also differ greatly in their winds, said meteorologist Geoff Fox in Irvine. California’s Santa Ana winds are dry, desiccating vegetation as they whip through canyons and passes. They don’t exist in Finland’s relatively flat country, Fox said.

Zinke said in his interview Sunday that Trump was right.

“You look at Finland. I had an opportunity to live in Germany. Their forests are healthy. They don’t have catastrophic burns because they manage the forest,” he said.

Zinke went on to say that federal officials will need to work together with California’s leaders on recovery and prevention efforts.

Times staff writer Paige St. John in Sacramento contributed to this report.

4:55 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about President Trump’s comments on Finland’s forest management.

This article was originally published at 4 p.m.

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