West Coast’s Raging Wildfires Reveal Trump’s Limitations

Date: 2020-09-17 22:30:27


After a series of deadly wildfires in 2018 scorched California, President Donald Trump ordered his federal agencies to do a better job of managing the vast federal forests under their care.

The executive order, issued in the wake of a fire season that included a blaze that killed 85 people in Paradise, California, instructed the departments of Interior and Agriculture to harvest more than 4 billion board feet of timber, clear underbrush and take other steps to deny fuel to wildfires.

But critics say this year’s voracious fire season — which has destroyed homes, killed dozens and ruined air quality from Mexico to Canada — illustrates the limitations of the strategy.

“This has nothing to do with fire management,” Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said in an interview. “In truth, logging doesn’t prevent forest fires.”

During a visit Monday to California, where wildfires have burned more than 3.2 million acres, Trump again blamed the state for not properly managing its forests, while sparring with officials over the role climate change plays in the conflagrations.

Trump said California should cut more firebreaks through its forests, comparing California to European forests that he said are better managed.

“They also have to do cuts. I mean, people don’t like to do cuts but they have to do cuts,” he said. “So if you do have a fire and it gets away, you’ll have a 50-yard cut in between so it won’t be able to catch in the other side.”

But the University of California estimates that about 57% of California forests are owned and managed by federal agencies. And the majority of the fires that have burned nearly 5 million acres this season in the U.S. have occurred within the forests managed by the federal government, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday argued that flawed forest management practices of the past can’t explain the state’s worsening fire seasons. California has been stepping up its use of controlled burns to thin out vegetation and has accelerated cutting fire breaks around vulnerable communities, he said. Only 3% of the state’s forests are on land management by the state government, he said.

Trump’s 2018 order, which also called for removing dead brush and debris as well as treating for tree-destroying pests, has not affected the amount of land burned by forest fires this year, said David McWethy, an assistant professor and fire ecologist at Montana State University.

“We can’t manage our way out of the current fire situation in the Western U.S. and what’s projected for the future,” McWethy said in a phone interview. “The scale of the problem is so large, with warming temperatures all of the projections are that we are going to have larger fires into the future.”

The Interior Department said in a statement that it has treated 1.4 million acres of federal lands since the executive order, and 5 million acres since Trump took office.

“The Department continues to follow President Trump’s action to help prevent catastrophic wildfires by promoting active management under Federal supervision and increase our state, local and Tribal partnerships,” the department said.

Miller, with Pomona College, said intensive logging occurred about a decade ago in Butte County, California, which was home to the deadly Camp Fire in 2018. The county is again home to a wildfire that has burned about 260,000 acres, he said.

“Clearly forest management by itself doesn’t stop fires. We are talking about much larger fires because of forces like climate change,” Miller said. “And no amount of raking is going to change the conditions of the desecrated west.”

The White House defended its strategy, saying in a statement that “decades of failed environmental policies that have blocked logging, controlled burns, and active forest management has to change.”

“State and local officials have to take action to improve forest management and increase preparedness efforts,” the White House said in the statement.

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