California’s wildfires continue to burn out of control, with the Mendocino Complex Fire near Clear Lake in Northern California, at 283,800 acres, now considered the largest fire in modern California history. As of sunset Monday, it was only 30 percent contained and had burned 75 homes.
More than 14,000 firefighters, including some from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, are battling 16 major fires burning in the Golden State that have killed eight civilians and four firefighters while also claiming the life of a utility worker laboring to restore power to a fire affected area. As of two days ago, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) spokesman Scott McLean said that 1,823 structures have been destroyed with 322 more damaged. Commenting on the fires, Pres. Donald Trump weighed in with a tweet criticizing the state’s environmental policies:
“California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized," he tweeted Sunday. "It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”
This prompted a rapid response from the spokesman for CAL FIRE:
“There is nothing to release. There are no specifics to the tweet. We have plenty of water to fight these fires… The current weather is causing more severe and destructive fires.”
Speaking to a reporter for BuzzFeed, CAL FIRE’s spokesman went on to say that the department had “no idea” what Trump was tweeting about regarding California’s “bad environmental laws” making the fires worse.
California Gov. Jerry Brown was quick to cast the blame for the record-breaking fires on climate change, claiming in a press conference last week that the global warming and associated forest fires predicted for 20 to 30 years from now are “now occurring in real time” with the expectation being that the trend will “…continue intensifying in California and throughout the Southwest.”
Numerous news outlets in California and across the nation joined in, echoing Brown’s linkage of climate change to the fires while mocking Pres. Trump.
Cong. Ted Lieu (whom the author served with the California State Assembly) chimed in as well, tweeting:
Cong. Lieu responded to Pres. Trump: It's Sunday. That means @realDonaldTrump is lying, again. There is more than enough readily available water in CA to fight the fires.
The truth is that wildfires across the United States started increasing in the 1980s. Some of this increase is attributable to climate change.TWITTER
It's Sunday. That means @realDonaldTrump is lying, again. There is more than enough readily available water in CA to fight the fires.
The truth is that wildfires across the United States started increasing in the 1980s. Some of this increase is attributable to climate change.
But in an interview posted by a San Francisco Bay area CBS affiliate shortly after President Trump’s tweet, CAL FIRE Assistant Chief Mike Marcucci said two interesting things.
The first was that the state’s forestry and fire control agency could not comment on the President’s remarks at this time, suggesting that the official party line was still being developed. That would come a day later with CAL FIRE focusing exclusively on criticizing the first part of the President’s tweet regarding California water policies while studiously ignoring the second part of the tweet regarding tree clearing.
Chief Marcucci’s second comment was highly revealing in that it agreed with the President’s core contention about government tree clearing policy while calling into question the rapidly-assembled official line from Gov. Brown, Cong. Lieu, and much of the major media. Chief Marcucci observed that, “It’s a daunting task that we’re working with some of our cooperators (i.e. federal and local authorities) on to make sure we can get some of those trees out of the way to not add to some of the fuel.” CAL FIRE elaborated on the issue by stating that years of abstaining from controlled burns resulted in unchecked growth creating a tinderbox now fueling out-of-control wildfires.
Of course, the media was quick to find “experts” who pointed out that in a tweet limited to 280 characters, the President offered no evidence that state or federal environmental policies played a role in the fires. That there was no evidence offered in a tweet does not prove anything. In fact, for more than 20 years, federal policies have discouraged tree thinning and brush removal on the 60 percent of California forest owned by the federal government while federal and state policies have similarly tilted against the use of controlled burns to reduce the fuel load. These misguided policies have been warned against for years by the forest management professionals who make their livings by planting, caring for and harvesting trees.
Returning to the comments by Gov. Brown, Cong. Lieu, and other elected officials, the contention that wildfires have grown in frequency is easily addressed by fact: no, they haven’t.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist and UCLA professor, Jon Keeley, after peaking in 1980, there have been progressively fewer wildfires in California. The trend has been seen globally as well, with the Royal Society in the U.K. reporting in a May 2016 paper that global fire activity has declined over the past decades, a finding verified in a follow on study published in the journal Science in September 2017 by British researchers at Swansea University.
I had the chance to follow up with CAL FIRE spokesman Scott McLean about the competing claims for blame on the extent of the fires. Regarding the President’s tweet he said, “There’s nothing to address because there’s nothing specific” in the tweet.
But when I pressed him on the tree thinning policies that the President was referring to in his tweet, McLean was more circumspect, saying, that “we definitely haven’t had the resources in the past to do a significant amount of work” referring to reducing the fuel load in the 31 million acres of forest land, mostly private, overseen by the state. He admitted that there as an “over-abundance of fuel” and that many of the trees had been dead for so long that they were rotten and falling over.
When I asked McLean about what the fuel load policies were like decades earlier, he said, “In the past, we used to have the resources to do that (reduce the fuel load) in state forests.” He said that was starting to change, even before the wildfires, with an allocation of $200 million that would fund grants to local agencies as well as pay for six hand crews who would work to start clearing out the heavy fuel load on state lands.
I questioned McLean on the federal policies that California’s forestry professionals complained to me about 13 years earlier while I was a California State Assemblyman—policies that they said were leading to a dangerous abundance of fuel on federally controlled forestland. McLean simply said, “I can’t talk about the federal policies.”
So, despite claims of increased wildfires due to global warming, their incidence has declined over the decades, both in California and globally. What is important to note is that without policies that allow thinning and brush control, the fires that do happen spread more readily and cause more damage.
The bottom line regarding California’s terrible fire season is simple: past federal and state policies that discourage the thinning of trees in forests, the clearing of underbrush, and the use of preventive controlled burns are to blame for the severity of the fires. Attacking President Trump and deflecting blame onto climate change doesn’t change the facts on the ground. These fires could have been mitigated by changes in environmental policy and budget priorities, the result of which was accurately predicted years ago by numerous forest management professionals.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on August 7, 2018.