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As deadly wildfires forced more than a quarter million Californians to flee their homes, President Trump recently alleged the infernos are the result of nothing more than poor "forest management." He also threatened to eliminate unspecified federal funds.
The Camp fire in Northern California’s rural Butte County had killed 42 people and destroyed more than 6,400 homes as of Monday, making it the state’s most deadly and destructive fire in history. Authorities said more than 200 people remained unaccounted for. The fire started on Nov. 8, 2018 in a wooded area near the town of Paradise.
Meanwhile, in Southern California, the Woolsey fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties was blamed for the death of two people and had destroyed an estimated 435 structures. That blaze started on a suburban hillside, not a forest.
In his first public comments about the fires, Trump tweeted on Nov. 10, 2018:
"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"
He tweeted again on Nov. 11, 2018:
"With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!"
Trump’s comments drew sharp rebukes from firefighters and state officials, both for the threat to withhold funding during an emergency and for oversimplifying the reasons the fires are so destructive.
In a tweet two days later, he thanked California’s firefighters and first responders. He also approved California's request for a major disaster declaration, freeing up federal aid for fire response and recovery.
Given the strong reaction, we decided to fact-check the president’s contention "there is no reason" for California’s fires other than poor forest management.
Trump’s claim suggests the state government controls decisions over how and whether to thin forests, clear brush and set prescribed burns. In reality, California owns just 2 percent of forest land in the state, while the federal government owns upwards of 60 percent, said Keith Gilless, a UC Berkeley professor of forest economics and chairman of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. The rest is owned by private landowners, timber companies and Native American tribes.
Gilless said tree harvests have declined significantly on national forest lands over the past four decades due, at least in part, to legal challenges by environmentalists concerned about clear-cutting. The professor added that money spent in the past on preventing fires has been diverted to fighting them.
The state has made significant investments in forest management, he said, but "has no leverage" over the federal government to do the same. In August, McClatchy reported the Trump administration "proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars" for tree clearing.
Gilless added that Trump’s tweet ignores additional key factors driving California’s recent "firestorms," such as winds reaching near 60 miles per hour and bone dry conditions.
With those extremes, "even good preparation can be overcome," he said.
"I think the biggest problem with the comments was the lack of nuance," Gilless said, describing them as "uninformed." "It is a complex situation. Simple pronouncements on a subject like this are almost always in error."
Asked about Trump’s tweets in an interview on CNN, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Deputy Chief Scott McLean declined to respond directly, citing "the lack of information given in that tweet."
He went on to describe California’s changing weather patterns.
"What’s been pushing all the fires these last couple years? The winds. The erratic wind behavior. The high temperatures early in the year that have dried out all this vegetation," McLean said.
Fire and climate experts also say the trend of more people moving into wildland areas increases the chances of sparking forest fires.
Jesse Miller, an ecologist who studies wildfires and lectures at Stanford University, described Trump’s comments as "off base and not capturing the complexity of the situation."
"Forest management might be part of the issue, but those are mostly federal lands up there (where the Camp fire started east of Chico). So, (Trump’s) actually in charge of most of those lands. … He’s also not recognizing the role of climate change. That’s by far what I and a lot of people think is the biggest factor driving these fires right now in California."
The White House did not respond to a request for evidence supporting Trump’s tweet.
President Trump claimed in a tweet "there is no reason" for California’s deadly fires other than poor "forest management."
Forestry and climate experts say forest management, which includes thinning out forests, setting prescribed burns and clearing brush, is only one factor. But it’s not the only one, and not necessarily the driving force in the state’s recent firestorms.
California’s stronger winds, higher temperatures and drier conditions driven by climate change are also making the fires worse. That’s in addition to the fact that more people now live in forested areas, increasing the chances of sparking an inferno.
Trump erroneously places the blame on just one factor, while ignoring these other reasons for California’s devastating fires.
We rate his oversimplified claim False.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
President Trump, tweet, Nov. 10, 2018
Keith Gilless, UC Berkeley professor of forest economics and chairman of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, phone interview, Nov. 12, 2018
Jesse Miller, ecologist and lecturer, Stanford University, phone interview, Nov. 12, 2018
Mercury-News, What’s starting all these wildfires? We are, Aug. 12, 2018
Sacramento Bee, Fact check: Trump thinks California fires cost taxpayers ‘hundreds of billions.’ Here’s the real number, Oct. 19, 2018
Sacramento Bee, Trump wants to clear more trees to halt fires. The feds need to spend more, experts say., Aug. 7, 2018
San Francisco Chronicle, Trump on California’s wildfires: ‘Forest management is so poor’, Nov. 10, 2018
Capital Public Radio, Dangerous Wildfires Like The Carr Fire In Redding Driven By Sprawl, Climate Change, Experts Say, July 27, 2018
University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources,Forest Research and Outreach, California Forests, accessed November 2018
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