The War on Wildfires: A Growing Feud Between California and Trump


Volunteers at the site of the Paradise Fire (Associate Press).

With 84 people dead and still 475 people unaccounted for , the recent wildfires across California, the Camp Fire in Butte County and the Woosley fire in Ventura County, are some of the deadliest in recent memory. Rather than unifying in response to this grave tragedy, tensions have only heightened in the already contentious relationship between California and President Trump. In response to this tragedy, the President, alongside his visit to areas destroyed by the Camp Fire, instead of simply offering his condolences and sympathies, has also threatened to revoke federal funds form California. This feud reflects the intense debate over the causes of the recent spike in wildfire disasters.

President Trump wrongly attributes poor forest management by the state and the state’s strict environmental laws as the cause of the recent wildfires. He claims, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” This claim is misleading as the two wildfires are not forest fires. These wildfires are occuring in areas known as  “wildland-urban interface,” or areas where neighborhoods lie near undeveloped land. Another reason his claims are misleading is that of the state’s 33 million acres of forest, the federal government owns and manages 57 percent. In addition, while the President raises concerns for forest management, his concern is not reflected in his administration’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year. The 2019 budget proposed by the White House cuts the research budget for the US Forest Service by 16 percent, for the entire Interior Department by 21 percent, and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 26 percent.

California officials, including outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown, the co-chair of the Global Climate Action Summit held in September,  have denounced President Trump, who has tweeted his belief that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese, over his misleading claims. At a press conference last Wednesday, Gov. Brown cited man-made climate change as the cause of the increased number of wildfires. In direct response to President Trump’s dubious claims, Gov. Brown said, “Managing all the forests in everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we’re now witnessing, and will continue to witness in the coming years.” His claims are consistent with conclusions drawn by scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that “higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States.”

While Gov. Brown’s claims are backed by scientific research, blaming only climate change fails to adequately address this dire situation. Increased development in high-fire risk areas also contributes to the greater number and intensity of wildfires throughout the state. One study found a “1,000 percent increase in the number of western U.S. homes at risk from wildfire over the past 50 years – from about 607,000 in 1940 to 6.7 million in 2010.” Jon Keeley, a US Geological Survey fire scientist, speaking to the Mercury News, claims, What’s changing is not the fires themselves but the fact that we have more and more people at risk.” With one-third of Californians now living in wildland-urban interface, the risk to life and property has only further increased alongside the increased propensity for wildfires due to climate change.

With over 200,000 acres burned, 84 lives lost, and the multi-day closures of both the University of California, Davis and Sacramento State University over concerns of unhealthy air quality, there is no longer any time for debate over the causes of these wildfires. As a nation, we should demand increased funding on scientific research and real, increased action in combating the human accelerators of climate change. As a state, a state in the midst of a housing crisis, we should re-evaluate how and where we expand and build new communities because building homes at high risk of catching fire makes no sense whatsoever. While these wildfires seem like insurmountable forces of nature, we do no have to stand idly by. We have a responsibility to our environment to protect it from the devastating effects of a more radical climate and a responsibility to our communities to not put ourselves at any greater risk than necessary.

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