West Coast governors ask for federal help to fight wildfires. Trump responds with threats.
A plea for help combating deadly wildfires from West Coast governors was met with a tweet from President Donald Trump threatening to cut California off from federal disaster aid on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), all called on Trump to double federal financial investment in managing wildfires in their states. The three governors sent a letter to the president making the request following a devastating 2018 wildfire season in the West.
The president responded with a soon-deleted tweet taking aim at California’s forest practices specifically. A revised tweet corrected for spelling errors was posted an hour after the original.
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!” the president wrote, referencing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster aid and responses.
A spokesperson for Newsom directed ThinkProgress to the governor’s Twitter response, in which Newsom referenced the letter sent by the three West Coast officials.
“Disasters and recovery are no time for politics. I’m already taking action to modernize and manage our forests and emergency responses,” wrote Newsom. Pointing to the California town of Paradise, which was virtually destroyed by last year’s deadly Camp Fire, the governor argued that those impacted by the fires should not be “victims to partisan bickering.”
Disasters and recovery are no time for politics. I’m already taking action to modernize and manage our forests and emergency responses.
The people of CA — folks in Paradise — should not be victims to partisan bickering.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) January 9, 2019
Trump’s tweet comes in the midst of a partial government shutdown that has seen many government agencies reduced to meager staffing levels and a number of federal programs paused or significantly scaled back. FEMA’s staffing has been impacted by the shutdown and the agency is currently sending out automated emails in response to requests for comment. The FEMA website is also not currently being managed.
But the back-and-forth over wildfires highlights ongoing tension between impacted states and the White House. Wildfires have taken a severe toll on western states in recent years, namely California, with more destructive and costly blazes becoming commonplace. Last fall’s Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Analysts have estimated that, along with the Woolsey Fire, the fires will ultimately cost the state between $6 billion and $8 billion.
California isn’t alone in its vulnerability to wildfires. Amid both over-development and a housing boom in the region and warmer and dryer weather that climate scientists have consistently linked to climate change, much of the West has been impacted. That growing reality was reflected in the letter sent by Newsom, Brown, and Inslee, requesting increased assistance from the federal government, specifically FEMA and the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service.
“The stark reality we now face is a longer fire season, driven by multi-year droughts and higher than average temperatures, creating extreme tinderbox conditions across the West Coast,” the governors wrote. “While the up-front costs of responsible lands management create budget pressure, they pale in comparison to the longer-term human and financial costs of doing too little.”
In addition to the letter, Newsom announced two executive orders aimed at bolstering California’s wildfire response. One instructs state agencies to consider the science of fires along with “social vulnerability factors,” like economic status, designed to mitigate the impact on California’s more vulnerable communities, including the elderly. The second empowers agencies to work with the private sector in order to help mitigate and address wildfires.
Those moves come after Trump sparred repeatedly last year with California officials over the wildfires, accusing the state of “gross mismanagement” of its forests. He additionally threatened to withhold federal funds to the state, prompting widespread criticism from firefighters, scientists, and other stakeholders. Both Trump and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claimed repeatedly that poor forest management caused the deadly wildfires; while experts tend to agree there should be more funding for forest maintenance, they emphasize the issue is far from the only factor contributing to wildfires.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has notably cut the Forest Service’s budget by some $2 billion. The agency has also been hit hard by the shutdown, with training halted for thousands of firefighters in the West and federal employees unable to perform a number of their traditional duties. That includes suspending “pile burns,” which involve burning off timber in winter months in order to reduce wildfires later on in the year.
Trump’s decision to reignite arguments over the wildfires on Wednesday indicates West Coast governors may be unlikely to find the relief they are seeking from the White House. CAL Fire, the state’s fire agency, did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment regarding Trump’s tweet was not met with an immediate response. But Democrats fired back on Wednesday, including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, offering criticisms of Trump and calling for aid for California.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, also criticized the president’s comments and connected the larger issue to climate change.
“President Trump has already destroyed his administration’s credibility by claiming that climate change — which contributes to making these wildfires even more destructive — is a hoax,” Grijalva said. “The president’s irrational climate denial will mean we need far more disaster relief, not less.”
Adding to the criticism, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), whose district includes the town of Paradise, commented Wednesday that “threats to FEMA funding are not helpful” and would do little to solve the forest management problems cited by the president.
“The President [sic] has seen first-hand our fire-ravaged areas in Northern California,” LaMalfa said. “He made the promise to help and I expect him to keep it.”