President Donald Trump arrived in California Saturday to assess the damage from the catastrophic Camp Fire, which has claimed the lives of 71 people so far, with more than 1,000 others missing. Millions of California residents are breathing the worst air in the world as smoke from the deadliest fire in California history travels hundreds of miles.
Trump was met by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom (D), both of whom routinely find themselves at odds with the president on numerous issues, including climate change, plus incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and FEMA Director Brock Long.
“This is very sad to see,” Trump said, standing in front of the charred shell of a home in the town of Paradise, which was almost entirely incinerated. After vowing to “work together” with Brown and others, Trump once again implied state officials are to blame for the catastrophic fires despite receiving widespread criticism for doing so last week.
“We do have to do management, maintenance, and we’ll be working also with environmental groups… I think everybody’s seen the light and I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent,” Trump said, without acknowledging factors like climate change that scientists say are contributing to larger and more destructive wildfires.
“We’ve got to take care of the floors, you know the floors of the forest, very important,” he continued. “You look at other countries where they do it differently and it’s a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he said… we’re a forest nation, he called it a forest nation, and they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things. They don’t have any problem, and what it is, it’s a very small problem.”
President Trump gets tour of burned-out neighborhood in Paradise, CA pic.twitter.com/OXaRSkwmZA
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) November 17, 2018
An endless line of Cal Fire engines heads out to go fight the #CampFire. Yes it’s still going. Forget about presidential visits. Putting this fire out and rebuilding our towns is what’s important. pic.twitter.com/zUiGDwgID3
— David Little (@ER_DavidLittle) November 17, 2018
Fueled by hot, dry, windy conditions that are becoming more common as climate change intensifies, the Camp Fire exploded last week. Around the same time, the massive Woolsey Fire charred huge swaths of Southern California.
Trump responded to the devastation by blaming the state’s elected officials for poor forest management and threatening to withhold federal funds. He was swiftly rebuked by officials, scientists, and firefighters alike.
“The president’s assertion that California’s forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong,” Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, said in a statement.
“Wildfires are sparked and spread not only in forested areas but in populated areas and open fields fueled by parched vegetation, high winds, low humidity and geography.” What’s more, Rice pointed out, nearly 60 percent of California’s forests are under federal management and a significant chunk is privately controlled.
“We’re in extreme climate change,” Daryl Osby, Los Angeles County fire chief, said in response to Trump lashing out on Twitter. “It’s very hurtful for all first responders that are putting their lives on the line to protect lives and property.” (The Southern California fires, in fact, were never burning forest land.)
It was perhaps not surprising that Trump said in an interview set to air in full on Fox News Sunday that the purpose of his trip was “just to see the firefighters.”
Back in August, the president again sought to blame California’s massive wildfires on state officials; that time, he claimed the problem was water management. Scientists called Trump’s tweet “comedically ill-informed” and “unmitigated crap.”
While California has a long history of annual wildfires, the blazes are bigger and more destructive than ever. Fifteen of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 2000 — and that doesn’t include this November’s monstrous blazes. Across the western U.S., the average number of large fires (over 1,000 acres) tripled from the 1970s to the 2010s and the fire season has been extended by 105 days, Climate Central found in a 2016 report.
The combination of higher temperatures and drought, fueled by climate change, and more people living along the wildland-urban interface has put an unbelievable strain on California’s firefighting resources; the state fire agency exhausted its annual $442.8 million budget in early August of this year.
“Behind the scenes of all of this, you’ve got temperatures that are about two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the New York Times.
But because Trump has repeatedly rejected widely accepted climate science — he has referred to global warming as a “hoax” on several occasions — he needs something or someone else to blame for increasingly destructive and dangerous wildfires sweeping through states like California.
“Maybe [climate change] contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management,” Trump said in the Fox News Sunday interview prior to visiting California. “You need forest management. It has to be. I’m not saying that in a negative way, a positive — I’m just saying the facts. And I’ve really learned a lot.”
As he continued his tour Saturday, Trump was asked about the role of climate change in devastating wildfires like the Camp Fire. “You have a lot of factors. You have the management factor… Right now that seems to be a very big problem and we’re going to get that problem solved,” Trump said, going on to discuss funding for forest management without answering the question.
“Does seeing the devastation change your opinion at all on climate change, Mr. President?” a reporter then asked. “No, no. I have a strong opinion,” Trump answered. “I want great climate, we’re going to have that, and we’re going to have forests that are very safe because we can’t go through this every year.”