Climate Change Does More Than 'Maybe Contribute a Little Bit': Debunking Trump's California Wildfire Claims

What research tells us about the impact of climate change, forest management, and more on California's fires.
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President Donald Trump speaks with Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newson, as they view damage from the Camp fire in Paradise, California, on November 17th, 2018.

President Donald Trump speaks with California Governor-elect Gavin Newson, as they view damage from the Camp fire in Paradise, California, on November 17th, 2018.

The fire that destroyed the town of Paradise left behind near-apocalyptic scenes of a future under climate change: winds ripping through a barren landscape, burned-out cars abandoned on the highway, homes razed to the ground, with at least 77 people dead and nearly a thousand missing. The speed and intensity of the fire has led experts—both researchers and firefighters—to point to the influence of warming temperatures and extreme drought on California's "new normal."

But the Trump administration has not budged. On Monday, President Donald Trump added to the list of false or misleading statements he's spread about California wildfire policy and the environment this year, telling CNN that he did not have a "strong opinion" on climate change's role in the fire. "Is it happening? Things are changing," he said. "We're going to make it better." Earlier this week, he also suggested that California could take lessons from Finland, which has a different climate, different trees, and a fire management strategy that does not involve "raking," as Trump suggested, the New York Times reports.

Climate scientists and land management agencies alike have been tuned into these changes, even if the Trump administration is not. Here's what research can tell us about climate change and wildfire in California and beyond.

Climate Change Is Driving the American West's 'New Normal'

Trump has vacillated between denying climate change, blaming "other factors" for wildfires, and making noncommittal statements. "Maybe it contributes a little bit," he said on Fox News last week. "The big problem we have is management." Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has made similar comments minimizing climate change's role in the Camp fire, the deadliest in California's history, blaming "environmental radicals" instead, the Hill reports.

Since the 1980s, climate change has doubled the area of forest in the U.S. considered vulnerable to fire—and research shows this will only grow. Projections suggest that carbon emissions, poor air quality, and a drying landscape will lead to more frequent fires across a greater expanse of land. One 2007 analysis projected heavy fire damage from warming in the Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada foothills, where two destructive fires—Camp and Woolsey—have burned hundreds of thousands of acres.

Despite Trump's doubts, climate change's role in this endless fire season has been widely accepted in the scientific community for years and has prompted calls for new suppression strategies among land management agencies. "Although numerous factors aided the recent rise in fire activity, observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment," wrote a pair of researchers in a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There Are 'Other Factors,' but Fire Management Is Not Among Them

Trump has placed much of the blame on California's fire management policies. "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," he said on Twitter on November 10th, two days after the Camp fire broke out, adding: "Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!" While individual firefighting strategies are often debated, experts point out that other factors, like urbanization, are more important.

For one, these fires do the most damage in cities and towns like Paradise, not in isolated forests. "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," Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, said in a statement.

Researchers also predict that increased development in wilderness areas will result in more death and destruction; one 2018 study found that the number of homes built in the wildland-urban interface, where people and wild landscapes intersect, has risen drastically, making more people vulnerable to—and likely to ignite—wildfires. "What we're really starting to see is the relationship between urbanization and wildland fire," wildfire policy expert Char Miller said in July. "Where people go, fires erupt. ... We're complicit in the very fires that we think are actually out there in nature."

California's Forest Management Is Not Responsible for Most of the Land Burning in the State

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known as Cal Fire), 60 percent of California's forests lie under the purview of the U.S. Forest Service. Another 30 percent is managed privately. After the president criticized the state for its practices, officials said that, if firefighters are ever ineffective, it's because the federal government defunded them; the Trump administration has proposed cutting several fire service programs in the 2019 budget.

California Professional Firefighters, representing 30,000 front-line firefighters and paramedics in California, pushed back on Trump's claims. "The president's assertion that California's forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong," Rice said in his response.

Climatologists No Longer Consider Clearcutting an Effective Practice

In October, the president threatened to withhold funding for fighting fires in what many have interpreted as a call to increase logging in the state. "They are leaving them dirty," he said. "Old trees are sitting there, rotting and drying. And instead of cleaning it up, they don't touch them, they leave them." He made similar statements while speaking favorably of Finland's strategy of "raking and cleaning and doing things," which has since been questioned by researchers (and mocked by Finns).

Experts say the Finns remove dead trees—as does California. But extensive tree removal is not a celebrated tactic: While some have embraced prescribed burning, clearcutting has proven ineffective. As Pacific Standard has reported, "Studies show that removing trees, either for commercial logging or as a fire-prevention strategy, can actually make fires more intense, leading to further destruction for both humans and wildlife." Clearing brush can disrupt ecosystems and leave behind flammable debris—all while failing to prevent fires from breaking out in urban areas, the biggest of Cal Fire's concerns, Rice says.

Intense Droughts Make California More Vulnerable to Fire, but the State Is Not Wasting Water

California is facing dangerous drought conditions, but environmental laws and water regulators are not to blame. In a tweet decried by researchers and officials alike, Trump blamed California's fires last summer on "bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized."

There's a lot wrong here, as Pacific Standard reported: California does not waste water by funneling it into the Pacific, and firefighters use water from local reservoirs, not waterways, to fight fires, says Mike Mohler, deputy director of communications for Cal Fire. Instead, climate change is depriving California of its water: Extreme drought and flooding will increase by at least 50 percent in this century, a 2015 Nature study found, turning the western wildlands into kindling for more fires.

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