Donald Trump says he has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to stop sending money to the State of California to help the state deal with deadly forest fires “unless they get their act together” — just a day after the governors of California, Washington, and Oregon requested more federal funding to clean up forests.
Mr Trump claimed in a tweet that California’s mismanagement of forests has led to dangerous situations in which wild fires can quickly build into massive and unwieldy blazes, in an apparently reference to last year’s deadly Camp Fire in the state.
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forrest fires that, with proper Forrest Management, would never happen”, Mr Trump wrote in a tweet that was later replaced with one spelling “forest” correctly.
He continued: “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
In response, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — who represents a California congressional district — said that Mr Trump’s tweets are an insult to the people who died last year during the fires.
The president’s “threat insults the memory of scores of Americans who perished in wildfires last year & thousands more who lost their homes,” Ms Pelosi said, before calling on the Republican minority leader in the House — a fellow Californian— to denounce the president’s remarks. Representative Kevin McCarthy “must join me to condemn & call on POTUS to reassure millions in CA that our govt will be there for them in their time of need”.
California Governor Gavin Newsom shot back at the president to say that California residents should not be the victims of partisan politics in Washington.
In a statement, Mr Newsom said that “disaster and recovery are no time for politics”.
Mr Trump last year approved expedited disaster relief for the deadly wildfires that became the deadliest forest fire in California history with 86 deaths. At that time, he expressed dissatisfaction with the way that the State of California had managed its forests, even though the vast majority of forest land in the state is owned by the federal government.
The president’s choice to hone in on forest mismanagement last year — whether by federal or state authorities — was quickly criticised by experts who noted that forest management played little part in the development of the deadly fires in California last year.
Instead, the fires that quickly tore through the state burnt through cities, fuelled in part by the expansion of homes and businesses in the state where buildings were designed to older codes that are not suitable for the current fire scenarios playing out in the state.
“These fires aren’t even in forests,” Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The New York Times at the time.
He continued: “We have vulnerable housing stock already out there on the landscape. These are structures that were often built to building codes from earlier decades and they’re not as fire resistant as they could be. This issue of where and how we built our homes has left us very exposed to home losses and fatalities like these”.
But, while forest management may have played less of a part in the urban fires that raged last year, forest fire experts and reports have noted that Mr Trump is not all wrong to say that forest mismanagement poses a significant and ongoing risk to the state.
“A century of mismanaging Sierra Nevada forests has brought an unprecedented environmental catastrophe that impacts all Californians,” a February report from the California’s Little Hoover Commission investigating fire danger in the state begins.
Even so, researchers have noted that California’s wildfires are becoming bigger and less predictable for more than just poor forest management.
Dry and hot conditions in the state have exacerbated conditions, making wooded areas in California into tinderboxes that are ready to ignite. Hotter temperatures at night have made it even more difficult to respond to the raging fires, and for fire fighters to take advantage of cooler nighttime air to make headway towards putting out the fires.
It is not clear what funding Mr Trump might ultimately withhold from California if he follows through on his threat, but the state of California has already allocated $256 million last year towards mitigating forest fire risk.
The state has roughly 33 million acres of forest, of which federal agencies including the US Forest Service and Interior Department own and manage 57 per cent. Another 40 per cent are owned by families, companies, and Native American tribes. State and local agencies own and manage just 3 per cent of the forest land in the state.