Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is standing by President Donald Trump’s claims that forest mismanagement is the source of California’s ongoing devastating wildfires, which have killed 82 people throughout the state as of Tuesday.
Zinke claimed that “radical environmentalists” have exacerbated forest issues in the state, allowing for the fires to take hold.
In an interview with the right-wing outlet Breitbart News Sunday, the Interior secretary recounted what he saw during a recent trip to northern California to survey wildfire damage.
“The pictures don’t do it justice. And I’ve fought in Iraq, I’ve fought in a number of places, this is the worst I’ve seen,” Zinke said, describing the scene as “like a flamethrower of embers” raining on unprepared residents.
But the interview quickly took a turn. Asked to speak to inspirational stories emerging from the tragedy, Zinke instead pivoted to what he believes to be the source of the fires: poor forest management.
“It’s not time for finger-pointing, we know the problem, it’s been years of neglect, and in many cases it’s been these radical environmentalists that want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber,” the official declared.
Those comments echo earlier remarks made by President Donald Trump. While visiting California on Saturday, Trump blamed the wildfires on poor forest management and argued that the state should mirror efforts by northern European countries.
“I was with the president of Finland… And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem,” Trump said at the time.
The president’s comments surprised his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinisto, who told the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper in Finland that he was confused by Trump’s interpretation of their conversation. But placing blame on forest mismanagement has emerged as a key talking point for the administration.
During his Sunday radio comments, Zinke did acknowledge “rising temperatures” and that “the fire season is longer” — two realities climate scientists say is directly linked to global warming.
Fueled by hot, dry, windy conditions that are becoming more common as climate change intensifies, the Camp Fire exploded last week.
But instead of drawing that connection, the secretary emphasized, once again, the state’s forests. “We need to actively manage our forests… we need to go back to prescribed burns late in the season,” Zinke argued, referencing Finland along with Germany.
He also defended a tweet from Trump threatening to cut off funding to California over the state’s forest policies, calling him “exactly right” on the issue and arguing, again, that forest mismanagement is the underlying cause of California’s wildfires.
Amid a devastating and record-breaking fire season, the state has already exhausted its $442.8 million state fire agency budget, which it drained in August earlier this year.
Zinke’s comments come as the deadliest wildfire in California’s history continues to rage. The Camp Fire in the northern end of the state has killed 79 people, with 699 still missing as of Tuesday. Further south, the Woolsey Fire has killed three people, with the fire around 94 percent contained.
The Camp Fire, which is around 70 percent contained, has completely destroyed a few areas, including the town of Paradise, which was burned to the ground. Smoke from the fire has caused air quality to deteriorate so badly that schools have shuttered in the Bay Area, home to San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland.
Dangerous particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in size, or PM2.5, is so heavily concentrated in the area that human health is at risk. At present, air quality in San Francisco is currently so bad that a day in the city is the equivalent of smoking 10 cigarettes.
Wildfires are a natural occurrence in the western United States, but overdevelopment in sensitive areas coupled with rising global temperatures has extended and exacerbated fire season. California officials have largely indicated they believe climate change is playing a major role in the fires, but both Trump and Zinke have downplayed that connection.
“I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years and you know what — this is on them,” Zinke said on Sunday, a claim he repeated a third time later in the interview.
In addition to questions about the wildfires, Zinke was also queried about his precarious position within the administration. The official is currently the subject of numerous ethics investigations and speculation has abounded that he could be set to depart his position.
Zinke addressed the vulnerability on Sunday to Breitbart. Calling rumors of his exit “laughable,” the official blasted allegations of wrongdoing as “outrageous” and said political opponents of the Trump administration have targeted his family.
“This is how angry the resistance movement is,” he said, before referencing his history in the Navy.
“I enjoy the fight,” he said. “I don’t mind getting shot at.”