Posted by: maboulette | November 10, 2019

Fact Check: Trump Again Misunderstands California’s Wildfires


For the second year in a row, President Donald Trump inaccurately attributed California’s rash of wildfires to poor forest management. He also falsely said other states don’t have “close to the level of burn” as California.


Most of the California’s latest blazes aren’t in forests, experts explained, and therefore aren’t the types of fires that would benefit from better forest management. Wildfires also aren’t limited to California, even if the state gets more attention for them. So far this year, for example, wildfires in Alaska have burned nearly 10 times as much land as those in California.


Trump’s comments began on the morning of Nov. 3, as firefighters in California were battling numerous fires across the state, including the Kincade Fire west of Sacramento and the Getty Fire in Los Angeles.  In a series of three tweets, the president attacked California Governor Gavin Newsom, saying he had done a “terrible job of forest management” and that he “must ‘clean’ his forest floors,” adding, “You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states.


Wildfires, of course, do happen elsewhere. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, an average of 61,375 human-caused wildfires occur every year across the U.S., of which approximately 7,500, or 12%, are in California.  And contrary to Trump’s claim that other states don’t have “close to the level of burn” as California, other states often outrank California in terms of acres burned. As of Nov. 5, more than 2.5 million acres had gone up in flames in Alaska this year, compared with fewer than 300,000 in California.


Figures reported to the fire center show that in 2017, both Nevada and Montana had more burned land than California, and in 2016 Oklahoma did. In 2015, Alaska had the most scorched land — more than 5 million acres — followed by Washington.  Even in 2018, when California’s 1.8 million burned acres totaled more than any other state, other states racked up substantial acreage as well, including Nevada, with more than 1 million acres, and Oregon, with nearly 900,000 acres. 

Of the 198 largest U.S. wildfires between 1997 and 2018, agency statistics show that 49 occurred in Alaska, 26 were in Idaho, and 23 were in California.


California, then, is by no means the only state with wildfires. Still, it is true that California is highly susceptible to wildfires and is home to some of the most costly and destructive fires.  California’s high risk, experts said, is explained by natural climate features and its massive population.


University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain also pointed to the Golden State’s climate and geography, which he said “sets it completely apart from any other region in the United States” and leaves it more susceptible to extreme wildfire than virtually anywhere else in the nation.  The state, he said, goes for a long time without rain — a period that coincides with high temperatures in the summer — and then seasonal winds come in during autumn when vegetation is very dry. “When the vegetation is as explosively flammable as it is in California toward the end of the dry season,” he said, “it’s surprisingly easy to spark a wildfire.”


Tinderbox conditions, of course, need a spark, and in California, the culprit is usually a person or something related to humans, such as a downed power line. 

Climate change, too, may be a factor in making fires more severe, because more hot weather can further dry out already dry vegetation, Swain said, and precipitation declines may delay the start of the rainy season.


Fire experts were mystified by Trump’s suggestion to “open up the ridiculously closed water lanes coming down from the North.”  “Using water in rivers or irrigation canals isn’t practical for keeping large areas from burning,” explained Dennison.  Syphard agreed that firefighting efforts were not being hampered by a lack of water in the state. “Adding more water,” she said, “is not going to improve the situation.”

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