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What Trump Got Wrong About California's Wildfire Policies

California climatologists fact-check the president's tweets on fire and water.
A firefighter extinguishes flames while battling the Carr fire on July 30th, 2018, near Redding, California.

A firefighter extinguishes flames while battling the Carr fire on July 30th, 2018, near Redding, California.

California is battling at least 17 major wildfires, many of which are already among the most destructive in the state's history. Then, on Sunday and Monday, California was hit with another storm: President Donald Trump's tweets, blaming "bad environmental laws" for this fire season's intensity.

Pacific Standard spoke with Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College and an expert on wildfire policy, to see if these claims had any validity. Like other climatologists who have publicly discredited the tweets, Miller said the president's claims have no foundation: "This is theater," he said. "But in effect, it sends a signal that the president, who took an oath to protect the federal domain, is unwilling to do so."

Here are five claims Trump made in his tweets, and the facts that debunk them.

1. "California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized."

This claim is "nonsense," Miller says: "There is no diversion from the source of water that Cal Fire [the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection], local fire departments, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management utilize to help suppress fires like the Carr, the Ferguson, and others."

Instead, these agencies get their water from local reservoirs like Clear Lake and Shasta Lake, which are full in Northern California this year due to a heavier rain season. Nor is this a fear in the southern part of the state: In the case of fires, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California coordinates the release of water through canals leading from the north to the south, where it is stored for later use.

Firefighters' needs, relative to this stockpile, are "a drop in the bucket," Miller says. "You can actually watch the helicopters come in, suck up, take off and then spray it."

Cal Fire also responded to this claim: "We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let's be clear: It's our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires," Mike Mohler, deputy director of communications for Cal Fire, told Pacific Standard in an email.

2. "[California's water] is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean."

Although it's not used to fight fires, California's water flows through estuaries, sustaining wildlife increasingly at risk from the irrigation districts' massive pumping operations.

"Water in California rivers isn't being 'diverted' into the Pacific," Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a water research think tank, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, said in a tweet. "It all used to flow there. What little water reaches the sea now is all that's left after farms and cities have diverted most of it out of rivers."

3. "Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else."

Experts believe the president might be referring to a separate environmental debate over access to water from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, which has become known as the California "water wars." Farmers argue that restrictions on pumping in the delta threaten the state's agriculture industry, while the California State Water Resources Control Board will likely approve a new plan later this month limiting water use to protect endangered wildlife.

This water source has no bearing on that used to fight fires, however. "He's conflating it for his own ends, which is to bash California," Miller says.

And as for the claim that the excess water is being diverted into the ocean, a spokesman for California Governor Jerry Brown, Evan Westrup, told the New York Times in an email, "Your guess is as good as mine."

Asked about this series of tweets as a whole, Westrup wrote to Pacific Standard, "This does not merit a response."

4. "Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!"

Reporters have interpreted this line as the president's support for clearcutting to prevent wildfires—a method that has come under fire in recent decades, as research suggests decades of clearing has done little to help.

Environmentalists have actually linked clearcutting to some of the country's biggest fires, according to Miller. Poorly managed clearcuts leave behind debris, which can fuel a blaze. Moreover, many of California's ongoing fires, like the Mendocino Complex, are not burning in forests—they're in grasses or chaparral, which the state does not clearcut anyway.

The debate goes deeper, however. Fire agencies like Cal Fire still employ suppression as a main tactic, and some studies show thinning forests can help prevent intense fires. The governor's office issued an order in May advocating for prescribed burning, as well as doubling the land managed through vegetation thinning, controlled fires, and reforestation, among other efforts.

Still, since the 1960s, Miller says agencies have increasingly heeded research showing that fires have ecological benefits: "Fire is necessary for the health of ecosystems, some more than others" Miller says. "California is one of those places where fire is normal and it should happen. The dilemma is not the fire, and it isn't the stuff it burns—it's the fact that human beings are now living in fire zones at an unhealthy rate and putting themselves in danger."

Trump's tweet most likely does not signal renewed federal support for clearcutting, according to Miller; a real effort would require the president to urge Congress to give more money to firefighting agencies, which has not happened.

5. "Think of California with plenty of Water - Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals."

It would indeed be nice to have a California with "plenty of water." However, the state's drought has more to do with climate change than any environmental regulations. In recent years, normally lush lands, like in Mendocino, have been reduced to dry kindling for wildfires.

Trump's tweets may have misconstrued the underlying factors, but California's wildfires do indicate several troubling trends. Climate change, for one, has turned the state's fire season into a year-long scourge. Extreme temperatures and prolonged drought, like the one southern California is experiencing, have been linked to a feedback loop that intensifies fires' effects.

The fact that Trump refuses to acknowledge the role of climate change here, Miller says, is "disheartening."

Beyond this, Miller points to a second factor: human presence in the landscape. Over the last few decades, three to four million Californians have moved into rural areas—high-risk zones for fire, where a source as small as a spark from a car can set off a destructive fire.

"Where people move, fire follows," Miller says. "We have to figure out a way to better live in the ecosystems that we now call home."