A month after tweeting that he might order FEMA to cut federal disaster funding to California fire victims, President Trump declined to renew that threat and indicated that talks with state officials were going well.
Speaking to The Times and several regional newspapers in the Oval Office, Trump said Wednesday that he and Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke by phone about two weeks ago, after his Jan. 9 tweet that he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency not to send more disaster funding to state officials “unless they get their act together, which is unlikely.”
Asked Wednesday if he still thinks the federal government shouldn’t give California any more money until the state changes its forest management practices, Trump refrained from directly repeating the threat, but said something has to be done to keep California from burning year after year.
“I told my people, I said we cannot continue to spend billions of dollars, billions and billions of dollars,” Trump said. “Forest fires are totally preventable. They shouldn’t happen.”
Trump said he was encouraged by his talk with Newsom.
“He was very respectful as to my point of view,” Trump said. “I think he agrees with me. I respect the fact that he called. The forests are, because of whatever reason, ... extraordinarily flammable, to put it mildly.”
Newsom’s spokesman Nathan Click said the governor and president had a "respectful conversation about the critical federal-state partnership necessary for emergency preparedness and disaster relief."
"The governor will continue doing everything in his power to help the survivors of wildfires and make sure the state is prepared for future disasters," Click said.
Environmental experts say the primary cause of increased fires in California is climate change and drought. The Trump administration has blamed poor forest management, though critics say such claims are misleading and in many cases false.
Thousands of Californians are still recovering from two massive fires this past fall that together killed nearly 90 people and burned thousands of structures.
Trump’s tweeted threat alarmed state and local officials. For weeks the White House and FEMA have provided no clarity about whether such an order would be implemented, and when. Even the California congressional delegation struggled to get information about what might happen.
For months the president has been critical of California’s forest management process, saying state environmental laws are too stringent and keep downed timber and other detritus such as leaves and fallen limbs from being removed before they can catch fire.
“It’s called forest management. You have very poor forest management,” Trump said. “You need good forest management and you will have either no forest fires or very small forest fires that are easily put out.”
Critics accuse the administration of trying to pressure California officials to open the state’s forests to increased logging.
The bulk of California's forest land is either federal property or private property, and outside the state’s authority to manage, but Trump said California’s strict state environmental laws keep the federal government from managing its lands in the state properly.
“In many cases because of the state environmental rules, the federal government isn’t even allowed to go in and clean them out,” Trump said.
In November, the Camp fire destroyed the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills, killing 86 people and destroying more than 13,900 homes in the area; and the Woolsey fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties left three dead and leveled about 1,500 structures in an unwooded area.
State politicians have implored Trump to remember what he saw when he visited Paradise in November to tour the destroyed area. He spoke at length Wednesday about his shock at the extent of the damage and how quickly the fire moved into and destroyed the town.
“That was a lot of bad luck,” Trump said. “It was dry. You had 80 mile-per-hour winds. It was a very flammable area.”