President Trump took to Twitter to blame bad forest management. Gov. Jerry Brown pointed to climate change.
Their arguments about the cause of disastrous wildfires roaring across the state have turned a California catastrophe into the latest political cudgel in the ongoing slugfest between Washington and Sacramento.
Both leaders are in a sense promoting their political agendas. In Trump’s case, that is an attack on environmental regulations. In Brown’s, it is a call to arms to slow global warming.
But as is often the case with political rhetoric, reality is far more complicated.
The Trump-Brown exchange ignores what many experts consider core reasons for fire’s escalating toll: Humans keep sparking them, and Californians keep building in high-fire zones prone to the fierce winds that inevitably drive the state’s most calamitous blazes.
In a tweet in the wee hours of Saturday, Trump framed a lack of logging as the sole cause.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted after the Camp fire — the deadliest wildfire in modern state history — leveled much of the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Paradise.
“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 declared.
The next day, Brown called the firestorms that have flared from Paradise to Malibu the “new abnormal” that threaten Californians’ way of life.
“Managing all the forests everywhere we can, does not stop climate change,” Brown said. “And those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness.”
Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, sees the comments “as a conversation between two pit bulls.”
“What we’ve got” from Trump is that “forest management is bad and California is suffering and that serves them right,” Miller said. “And Brown goes for … the higher ground — if we’re thinking of climatic issues — but it doesn’t actually solve anything on the ground.”
Silence hangs over Paradise,Calif., after the explosive Camp fire burned through Butte County and claimed 23 lives. Residents have not been allowed back.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
President Donald Trump meets California Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom at Beale Air Force Base on Saturday.(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
US President Donald Trump views damage from wildfires with Paradise Mayor Jody Jones in Paradise, Calif.(SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump walks with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left and FEMA Administrator Brock Long, right, as he visits a neighborhood impacted by the wildfires in Paradise, Calif.(Evan Vucci / AP)
President Donald Trump tours the Woolsey Fire ravaged neighborhood on Dume Drive in Malibu on Saturday.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles TImes)
President Donald Trump, second from left, tours the Woolsey Fire ravaged neighborhood on Dume Drive in Malibu.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles TImes)
From left, Johnny Hardin, 15, Madeline Hardin, 13, Donita Hardin and Erik Hardin, 15 months old, get ready to sleep in their car after getting displaced by the Camp fire, at the Walmart parking lot in Chico, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alexandria Wilson, 21, kisses her dog Harley, after they both escaped the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Search and rescue teams inspect the grounds of a house burned by the Camp Fire along Boquest Boulevard in Oroville, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteers hand out supplies to fire evacuees near a Walmart in Chico, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
People go through donated clothes at a Walmart in Chico, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
A sign warns looters at the site of burned-down properties in Paradise, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains Friday at Paradise Gardens, in Paradise, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alexandria Wilson, 21, consoles her boyfriend, Jacob Golden, 25, as they recount their harrowing escape from the Camp Fire at a relative’s house in Applegate, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A vanished neighborhood in Paradise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A forensic team investigates the site of a Paradise home where remains were found.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Michael John Ramirez hugs his wife, Charlie Ramirez, after they found her keepsake bracelet while sifting through the remains of their home in Paradise.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Religious figurines sit atop a burned vehicle in Paradise.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Authorities recover the remains of a fire victim from an overturned car alongside Pearson Road in Paradise.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
David Neeley hugs his ex-wife, Jeanne Neely, and their daughter, Faith Neeley, 10, in a parking lot in Oroville, where they are staying amid the Camp fire.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Megan Butler, 26, and her daughter Aurora, 2, are homeless after their house burned down in Concow in the Camp fire.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Yolo County Animal Services Officer Stephanie Amato holds a chicken she helped rescue in Paradise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Smoke fills the sky as the Camp fire continues to burn along the North Fork of the Feather River. It has already burned more than 200,000 square miles.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A sign in Paradise offers a warning for would-be looters.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A man rests at a shelter at the Church of the Nazarene in Oroville, Calif.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Outside of Pulga, Calif., on the North Fork of the Feather River, the Camp fire continues to burn.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Outside of Pulga, Calif., on the North Fork of the Feather River, where the Camp fire may have started, helicopters do airdrops while ground crews try to keep the fire from spreading.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighter Brian Carter of Weed, Calif., keeps an eye on the flames along the North Fork of the Feather River.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Many people don’t want to stay in shelters because they can’t take their dogs inside. This dog waits for his human companion in a parking lot in Oroville.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Residents of Paradise, Calif., try to get through a roadblock to check on their home but are turned away. People haven’t been allowed to return to the town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The Camp fire burns along a ridgetop near Big Bend, Calif., on Saturday.(Noah Berger / AP)
Yuba County sheriff’s officials carry a body away from a burned residence in Paradise.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A crew from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection walks through the rubble of a home while putting out hot spots in Paradise, Calif.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
Flames and embers, pushed by strong dry winds, set the town of Paradise, Calif., ablaze. Thousands of buildings were destroyed.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Brad Weldon, 63, waits for help along Skyway in Paradise, Calif. Weldon was among the residents who stayed and battled the wildfire.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
Fire crews put out hot spots in Paradise, Calif.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
Firefighters walk through the rubble of a home in Paradise, Calif.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
What’s missing in this politicization of wildfire, Miller said, is a vital question. “Why is it that at the county, city, town level, we have repeatedly green-lit development in areas that we know are fire zones?
“Whether it is to allow a rock star to build on a ridgeline in Malibu or a manufactured-home community that nestles into the foothills, the decision is the same and the consequences are the same. People who have been routed out of their houses have lost their possessions, and many people have lost their lives.”
This is not the first time Western wildfires have became a political football. President George W. Bush’s administration pushed more commercial logging in national forests after huge wildfires erupted in federal forests in the West in the early 2000s.
But with his wildfire tweets, Trump is once again breaking old boundaries.
“I’ve been following these issues for 40 years, and I don’t remember a time when the issue of wildfire has ever been politicized anywhere close to the extent it is now,” said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis.
“Trump’s tweets and comments on the subject are completely uninformed,” he said. “To attempt to make political points in the middle of calamitous public disasters of wildfires of the type and extent we’ve never seen in recorded California history is not helpful, to say the least.”
Overgrown forests — the result of a century of fire suppression as well as past logging that cleared the way for dense young stands of trees — pose a heightened wildfire threat in some parts of the Sierra Nevada.
But that has not played a role in the string of wildfires that is exacting a horrific toll on life and property in California.
The conflagrations have mostly seared oak woodlands, chaparral and grass. Although Paradise is near forestland, the wind-whipped Camp fire tore across areas that burned in 2008 lightning fires and were also later logged. It is not fueled by heavy timber.
At the same time, fire scientists say Brown’s emphasis on climate change is too narrow.
“The way I think most scientists see it is that climate change is exacerbating this situation. It’s making it worse. But it is by no means the primary cause,” said Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
In Southern California, he pointed to human-related ignitions and drought, which left masses of dead shrubs to fuel flames.
“What’s big in Southern California is whether or not somebody starts a fire during a Santa Ana wind event. And if they do it after seven years of drought, it’s way worse,” he said.
The cause of the wind-driven Woolsey blaze that has scorched nearly 100,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains and incinerated more than 400 homes has not been determined. Nor has one been given for the Camp fire. But in both cases, anomalies with utility lines have been reported around the time flames were first spotted.
Keeley’s research found that from Sonoma County to San Diego, 99% of the wildfires in coastal California have human-related causes, whether that be downed power lines, sparking equipment or weed whacking during hot, windy weather.
The state should focus on where people build and reducing fire starts, particularly from downed power lines, Keeley said. “We need a fire zone where people are not allowed to build in areas that are hazardous,” he said.
Similarly, UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens said that although climate change is playing a role in wildfire growth, he worries that a focus on global warming can leave the public thinking that “there’s really nothing to be done.”
In fact, he said, “Communities could still be better prepared.”