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Seeking Higher Ground: Debunking Trump’s mean and mindless jab at our Forest Service firefighters

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This morning, I’m flaming over the president’s callous, clueless, cruel tweet:

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

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Contrast that with the sentiments of the hundreds who lined Crown Mountain last summer to express gratitude to the Lake Christine firefighters. Local residents cheered firefighters from 28 states, the police and EMTs, 38 collaborating government agencies—and the Forest Service, which coordinated it all.

Why on god’s formerly-green earth would someone in a leadership position insult firefighters and threaten their jobs?

I’ll take the high road here. Rather than attributing Trump’s remark to viciousness, I’ll chalk it up to ignorance. Plenty of that in this 48-word tweet!

First off, it’s hard to say where Trump tallied “hundreds of billions of dollars”. The budget for Cal Fire, California’s firefighting agency, is $2.3 billion this year. Never mind that California increased its forestry budget while Trump’s administration cut federal fire-control funds…

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Second, these fires are fueled largely by brush, homes, yards, cars and even RVs. So far, they have killed 44 people and caused 250,000 to evacuate. While it’s true that a century of fire-suppression has unwittingly provided fuel for forest fires, only the Camp Fire, in Northern California, could be in any way be considered a “forest fire.” That blaze began in the Las Plumas Forest, annihilated the town of Paradise, and is now continuing across Butte County’s grasslands, which look like the shrubby, treeless hills around Golden.

The two Southern California fires — in Thousand Oaks and along the Los Angeles-Ventura County line — are categorically not forest fires. As the Pasadena Fire Association tweeted back to Trump, these are “urban interface fires” which have “nothing to do with forest management.” A key reason for such fires is that towns have expanded into formerly wild areas, exposing far more people to danger.

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Right now, California is so dry that anything from lightning to a dragging trailer chain can spark a blaze. It’s tinder-dry there, just as it is here, due to drought.

California has weathered seven consecutive years of drought, and last winter, the Sierra Nevada accumulated only 30-50 percent of its average snowpack. Still, there’s “plenty of water to fight these wildfires”. That’s what Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire’s assistant deputy director, said in response to another ill-informed Trump tweet last August, adding, “but let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

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The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that, due to climate change, every Western state is experiencing an increasing number of big wildfires each year. Local seasons do vary, but they “have almost universally become longer over the past 40 years”. Among the reasons: “since 1970, average annual temperatures in the Western US have increased by 1.9° F, about twice the pace of the global average warming.” That moves snowmelt a week to a month earlier than in the 1940s, adding to long, dry fire seasons.

Multiple factors are contributing to the West’s wildfires, but those looking to finger the unifying culprit in human “mismanagement” will find it right there.

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I find it cruelly ironic that Trump chose to tweet out his ignorance about all this while sitting in Paris. The Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by 198 countries in 2015, was intended to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to combat the global warming that’s fueling the West’s big increase in wildfires. Trump pulled the US out of that agreement in June 2017.

What’s going up in flames here are facts, the use of science to guide public policy, collaboration and democratic norms of civility and compassion.

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I’m pretty sure that the Californians who have had to evacuate are feeling the same hot mess of emotions we felt last summer: fear, sorrow, loss and gratitude.

I’m also pretty sure they’d angrily agree with Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighter Association, who tweeted, “The president’s message attacking California and threatening to withhold aid to the victims of the cataclysmic fires is ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering, as well as the men and women on the front lines…”

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Personally, I think the landscape most in need of fire-mitigation work is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. James Comey nailed it when he likened the Trump presidency to a forest fire, saying, “His presidency is doing, and will do, tremendous damage to our norms and our values, especially the truth.”