Trump blames California, but here's how much federal land fires have burned this summer

Damon Arthur Redding Record SearchlightPublished 1:08 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020During President Trump’s visit to Cal

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During President Trump’s visit to California on Monday he again needled state leaders, calling them out for policies he said have made wildfires worse.

But so far this summer, two of every three charred acres in California, Oregon and Washington have been owned by federal land managed by Trump's administration.

Just as he did earlier this summer, Trump on Monday said Democratic leaders in California are to blame for failing to rake leaves and clear dead trees from forest floors.

 “When you have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground, it just sets it up,” Trump said. “It’s really a fuel for a fire. So they have to do something about it.”

California officials, however, blame climate change on fires that have become larger, more intense and deadlier over the past few decades.

Nowhere has the impact been greater than on federal lands.

Trump blames California

More than 1.1 million acres have burned on federal lands in California this year, compared to 769,032 acres on non-federally managed lands, according to figures collected by the National Interagency Fire Center.

In California, Washington and Oregon combined, about 1.9 million acres have burned on federally-managed land compared to just over 1 million acres on non-federal land, according to NIFC.

The president made similar remarks in August shortly after lightning strikes ignited hundreds of wildfires around the state. He also dismissed climate change as a factor.

See what the West looks like: Wildfires burned millions of acres across West

He said California's forest fires continue to burn because the state is not "cleaning its floors."

"I said, 'You gotta clean your floors. You gotta clean your forests.' They have many, many years of leaves and broken trees," Trump said in August. "We say, 'You gotta get rid of the leaves. You gotta get rid of the debris. You gotta get rid of the fallen trees.'" 

He then added, "Maybe we're just going to have to make them pay for it because they don't listen to us." 

Newsom says climate change is to blame

Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, said Monday climate change is driving California’s climate catastrophe.

Since the beginning of the year, wildfires have obliterated California's records for acres burned. Some 3.2 million acres have incinerated statewide. Fires across the state have killed 24 people and destroyed more than 4,200 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

North Complex Fire updates: Fire closes in on Camp Fire scar, death toll reaches 14

Wally Covington, professor of forestry at Northern Arizona University, agreed that forests have become overgrown and need to be thinned, but “not with a lawn rake.”

Some of the policies that led to overgrown forests, such as aggressive fire suppression, were implemented more than 100 years ago. Blaming California’s current leaders doesn’t make sense, Covington said.

He said people living in areas burning up now are paying the price because policymakers would not address climate change and the effects of fire suppression on forests 30 or 40 years ago.

“Amongst fire scientists like myself we’ve been convinced that this train wreck was going to happen for years and years,” he said. “I was hopeful back in the ’90s and ’80s that maybe we would reverse climate change effects. Now I’m kind of pessimistic.”

The principal reason forests are overgrown is that for more than 100 years, fire has been aggressively stopped, which causes forests to become overgrown, he said. Smaller, less intense fires keep the forests thinned and less likely to burn as hot and fast, he said.

'Forest management' vs. 'climate change': 3 key takeaways from Trump, Biden remarks on wildfires

Climate change and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also cause forests to grow faster and denser, Covington said. Climate changed weather patterns are hotter, drier and more windy — all conditions for making fires burn hotter and faster.

Climate change has even brought more frequent and intense lightning storms, he said.

Trump on climate change

But meeting with Newsom on Monday, Trump again downplayed climate change as a factor in increased wildfires. The world's weather will get cooler, “just you watch,” Trump said, according to the Associated Press.

In 2015, Trump said, “I’m not a believer in global warming, I’m not a believer in man-made global warming.”

After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded climate change would hurt the economy, Trump said he read it but didn’t believe it.

University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch called Trump's deflecting blame on forest managers “infuriating,” the AP reported.

“It’s often hard to know what Trump means," Balch added. "If by forest management he means clear-cutting, that’s absolutely the wrong solution to this problem. ... There’s no way we’re going to log our way out of this fire problem.”

Fire Cat: Amid destruction, firefighter rescues 'fire cat' as it runs to him for safety

U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, called climate change theory a “radical” political position as he slammed Newsom for visiting fires burning in Butte County last week.

“Today, the Governor had the audacity to come tour the North Complex and peddle his climate change agenda while offering zero solutions to alleviate the pain of our people or get these fires under control,” LaMalfa said in a press release issued Friday.

Earlier last week, however, LaMalfa praised California officials on an agreement in which 500,000 acres of forest on federal lands would be thinned annually while another half-million acres of non-federal lands would be thinned each year.

And in his statement Monday, LaMalfa also named the federal government as the most important player in forest management.

"Decades of mismanagement in our federal forests is the largest contributing factor to the destruction we have seen in recent years," he said. "For 40 years we have not properly managed the forests and now our rural areas are paying the price again."

Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 and Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!
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