California is on fire again, with massive wildfires devouring hundreds of thousands of acres in separate regions at both ends of the state. The largest, the Camp Fire, has burned over 100,000 acres in Butte County since it initially started on November 8, killing 26 people and destroying over 6,700 buildings. The Woolsey and Hill Fires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties have consumed nearly 75,000 acres between the two conflagrations, leaving two known dead so far. President Donald J. Trump has blamed the fires on what he refers to as "gross mismanagement of the forests", an inaccurate accusation that has drawn criticism not only for being untrue, but also for dividing the American people at a time when the citizens of the Golden State require support the most.
Just after midnight on November 10, Trump tweeted:
"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!"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
This accusation is inaccurate: The west coast has been hit hard by a prolonged drought that has brought years of dry weather, creating tinder-dry conditions in California’s forests and scrublands, areas that have seen little rain since 2012. Although the state is traditionally arid, these changes to California’s climate have been steadily worsening over the past few decades, a change brought about by global warming. Compounding the long-term problem are strong winds that whip up this time of year that fan fresh oxygen into the wildfire’s flames, and spread the conflagrations into previously unburned areas with dead and dry vegetation, highly-flammable kindling produced by the prolonged drought. Fake news sites are supporting the president’s contention by claiming that the state has recently abandoned controlled burns. It has done this not out of negligence, but because the brush is so dry that no burn can be controlled.
"Dead vegetation contributes to rapid fire spread and higher fire intensity making it extremely difficult to fight these fires," explains University of California adjunct professor Jon Kelley. Kelley is also a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. "The combination of extreme drought, vegetation dieback, high winds, and accidental human ignitions are the reason these fires are so severe."
Despite Trump’s incendiary accusation, these conditions are beyond the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (CDF, or Cal Fire) power to control. Additionally, the Woolsey and Hill Fires in SoCal are being fueled by dry shrubs found in the scrubland surrounding Los Angeles — there are no major forests in the area to manage to begin with.
"As, frankly, someone who was evacuated and has visited burnt out homes, that Trump tweet today blaming the state was an insult and so uninformed," according to University of California geography professor Glen MacDonald, a climate change researcher and Californian that was forced to evacuate ahead of the wildfires.
"There are no forests to manage here. Coastal fires and shrubs are part of what burnt. It was a statement made with insensitivity and ignorance," MacDonald continued, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
MacDonald also had something to say about the impact of global warming on California’s climate: while he admits that wildfires are a natural phenomenon in California, he warns that global warming caused drought means that things are getting worse.
"If you look at the 20 biggest fires in the state, 15 of those have happened since 2000," he explains. "There are now bigger fires, and more and more record breakers coming in. Fire season is getting longer. We are also seeing record breaking temperatures. It is getting hotter and hotter. Spring starts earlier. Our fire season now goes into the winter." Extended shifts such as this are a hallmark of climate change.
Unlike Trump, MacDonald has nothing but praise for how his home state has responded to the emergency, saying that he and his family were only able to make it out of harm’s way because of the actions of local authorities. "I can’t say enough about the system here," he said. "They phoned. Multiple numbers. Police went door to door. They used loudspeakers through the streets." But firefighters still have an uphill battle to fight, as the Camp Fire in the north is only 20% contained, and no progress has been made in keeping the Woolsey Fire at bay. The Hill Fire, the smallest of the three, is now 25% contained.