President Donald Trump on Sunday, Nov. 3, criticized California's Democratic governor for his handling of wildfires and made a vague threat to cut aid as blazes continue to burn in the northern and southern parts of the state. The comments are the latest installment of the president's long-standing grievance with California, a state that has clashed with Trump's administration, particularly on issues of environmental regulation.
In Trump's first significant mention of California's wildfires on Twitter since the massive Kincade Fire broke out in late October, the president accused Gov. Gavin Newsom of doing a "terrible" job of forest management.
Newsom later responded with his own tweet: "You don't believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation." The governor's criticism was a jab at Trump's longstanding refusal to acknowledge the impact of climate change or the man-made factors that accelerate it.
As he has before, Trump made several erroneous claims about the causes of and potential solutions for the wildfires while writing that he had told Newsom previously to "clean" the forest floors.
The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management. I told him from the first day we met that he must “clean” his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him. Must also do burns and cut fire stoppers.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2019
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment seeking clarification about his statements, including the specific funding of which Trump was speaking when he declared "no more."
In a statement to The Washington Post several hours after Trump's initial criticism, Newsom defended his administration's management of the wildfires shot back at Trump a second time.
"We're successfully waging war against thousands of fires started across the state in the last few weeks due to extreme weather created by climate change while Trump is conducting a full on assault against the antidotes," the governor said.
Trump's Sunday tweets are a retread of his own past remarks about California's wildfires. In January, he threatened to cut off Federal Emergency Management Agency aid to the state as it grappled with the destruction from a deadly and devastating 2018 fire season. It was unclear whether he had the authority to do so.
In decrying California's forestry management, he echoed a prior suggestion that wildfires can be mitigated by cleaning or "raking" the forest floor. The president's criticisms, however, reflect a broad misunderstanding of the climate-driven science behind the seasonal wildfires and at the same time mischaracterizes the realities on the ground in California.
..Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states...But our teams are working well together in.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2019
While fire prevention generally includes some level of debris management, scientists and fire-prevention experts agree that California's wildfire situation largely stems from intensifying heat and creates a tinderbox conditions come fire season - which coincides with the prime time for powerful offshore winds like the Santa Ana and El Diablo that spread the easily-fueled fire.
Though natural events like lightening can start fires, most of the wildfires in the state are started by human conditions.
Last year's Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive in California history, was sparked by equipment operated by the utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Several of the largest wildfires of this year's season aren't even burning in forests: The Getty Fire and others near Los Angeles broke out in vegetation-dominated hillsides rather than in state or federal forests. California typically experiences its rainy season during this time of year, but no showers are in sight near L.A. If the rains hold off, fire danger will remain a significant threat possibly through November and even into December.
Trump has a pattern of wrapping his remarks on climate-fueled crises on the West Coast with barbs aimed at Democratic leadership in states such as California, Washington and Oregon. Though the president focused his attack on Newsom, the majority of California's forests are managed by the federal government.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump attacked one of his favorite targets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., before pivoting back to criticisms of Newsom.
....putting these massive, and many, fires out. Great firefighters! Also, open up the ridiculously closed water lanes coming down from the North. Don’t pour it out into the Pacific Ocean. Should be done immediately. California desperately needs water, and you can have it now!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2019
California has in fact made fuel management a priority following the 2018 wildfire season, Jesse Melger, a spokesman for Newsom, told The Washington Post. At the same time, Melger said the federal government "slashed funding" for some of the same fire prevention activities.
As the president threatened to cut federal dollars to their state, Californians this season have endured historic blackouts, mandatory evacuations and, in hundreds of cases, the loss of their home. At least five people have died in wildfire-related cases since October.
Sunday isn't the first time the rancor between Trump and Newsom has played out in public. The two clash ideologically on issues ranging from climate change to immigration, but the president first provoked Newsom's ire when he claimed - falsely, according to Newsom - that the governor had lavishly praised Trump as "one of the smartest people I've ever met." As impeachment talk coalesced around Trump in early October, Newsom backed booting the "corrupt" president from office. Despite Newsom's harsh words for the president, he offered a positive assessment of the Trump administration's response to the recent spate of wildfires earlier in October.
"I have nothing but good things to say about the federal government's support," Newsom said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "In fact, the Homeland Security acting director proactively called me two days ago to check in. . . . Hats off to them."
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This article was written by Kim Bellware, a reporter for The Washington Post.
The Washington Post's Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.