Fiddling while California burns
It’s fitting that President Trump’s stop near Sacramento for a wildfire briefing Monday was belatedly tacked onto a campaign and fundraising swing through the West. Trump has treated the fires as an afterthought when he isn’t acting as a human accelerant.
Trump is the world’s most powerful and prominent denier of humancaused climate change, the role of which has become unmistakable in the recordshattering wildfires that have ravaged California and its neighbors in recent years. While the president prefers to blame state officials for forest mismanagement, the federal government owns and manages much of the land that has burned. Nor can Trump claim the high ground on the state’s most important wildfirerelated failure, irresponsible development, having disparaged the most serious attempts to address the problem.
With warmer temperatures making fuels more combustible and fires more volatile, all of California’s 10 largest wildfires on record have taken place since the turn of the century; four of them, including the largest by far, are burning right now. With much of the fire season remaining, the state has already seen more acreage burn than in any other year in modern history.
And yet Trump, reminded that California’s Death Valley recently set what could be a global temperature record, assured state officials without evidence Monday that “It’ll start to get cooler.”
His policies have been as impervious to reality as his commentary. His administration is trying to roll back automobile mileage standards set by California and the Obama administration to reduce planetwarming emissions, even though five major automakers have sided with the state. Last month alone, the administration moved to ease rules restricting releases of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and open the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
Although Trump seems to misunderstand forest management as a matter of “raking,” “sweeping” or “cleaning” the wilderness, his fixation on the topic has more basis in science than his climate change denialism. California’s forests have indeed grown denser and more dangerous over the past century because of fire suppression.
The trouble lies in Trump’s efforts to lay the blame entirely at the feet of state officials. The federal government owns more than half the state’s forests and most of the land burned in wildfires over the past five years nationwide, particularly in California and the West. Last week, all 18 of the state’s national forests were closed due to fire risks.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and the U.S. Forest Service recognized the shared responsibility last month, announcing a joint effort to reduce wildfire risks across a million acres a year through controlled burns and debris removal.
The state government’s greatest culpability for the devastation stems from its pushing residential development away from metropolitan centers and toward wilderness areas that are vulnerable to fires. That leads to more humancaused fires and more danger to lives and property when they burn.
The state’s Democraticdominated Legislature has repeatedly killed efforts by state Sen. Scott Wiener, DSan Francisco, and others to end the restrictive zoning that fuels exurban development. Here Trump could have pointed to a real shortcoming on the part of the state he loves to hate — if he had not disingenuously attacked Wiener’s efforts as part of a concerted Democratic attack on suburbia itself.
The reality is that the wildfires pose policy problems of such scope and complexity that we would be hardpressed to solve them even with all the candor and cooperation that the president’s response has lacked.