In a nation as politically divided as the US is today, virtually everything is politicised, and often for good reason. In California, as wildfires have brought devastation to huge swaths of land, taking homes and lives, the President of the US took the opportunity to tweet out a political stab at the Golden State he sees as his opposition. Needless to say, this has sparked quite a bit of outrage and support on social media, culminating in a deluge of vitriolic nonsense. As much as I enjoy the drama (I actually saw someone on Facebook blaming Jerry Brown and high-speed trains today), I saw an opportunity here to try to set the record a little straighter.
In his tweet, Donald Trump wrote:
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!
While much of what the president says can be short on truth, I wanted to get a little more information, lest I fall into the muck of social media, ranting with conviction about things I know very little about. I decided to sit down and talk to Dr. Jerry Ahlstrom PhD. Dr. Ahlstrom has a bachelor’s in forestry, a master’s degree in watershed management, and a PhD in hydrology. His background in natural sciences allowed for unique insights during his thirty-five year career working for the California department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). During his tenure at CDF, Dr. Ahlstrom was the assistant executive officer to the state board of forestry, ran the nursery program that produces seedlings for reforestation, studied and generated scientific reports on the status of forests in California for the Forest Resource Assessment Program, and spent many years as the chief enforcer of the Forest Practice act of 1973. In full disclosure, Dr. Ahlstrom is someone I know very well—he is my step-father and raised me since I was about seven years old.
As soon as I we began our conversation, I skipped straight to the 500-pound gorilla in the room and began asking Dr. Ahlstrom whether the state of California was responsible for the fires we are now seeing throughout the state. I was surprised to learn that the land administrated by the state is actually very small, the largest portion being Jackson State forest, which is primarily a redwood forest on the coast. However, most of the redwood forests in the state are privately owned. Sixty percent of the overall forests in California are under the control of the US Forest Service. Other wild lands are under the control of Bureau of Land Management, which controls relatively small parcels of land, forty to sixty acres here and there. How much administrative control does the state have over the federal land? Dr. Ahlstrom told me, “none at all.”
Unlike Oregon, a state controlling much of its own forests, California has little to no control over the vast majority of the land. The Forest Practice Act, however, allows the state considerable leeway on privately held lands that are being commercially logged. All logging operations on private land require in-depth studies on myriad factors relating to the environment and nearby communities to be generated by a licenced forester. While logging on private land requires compliance with environmental laws, the state has no other jurisdiction over private lands. In fact, if a property owner cuts trees on their land for non-commercial use, the state of California has no legal authority over the activity.
Dr. Ahlstrom explained to me that, while the California state lands are administrated very well, federal funding for the lands in the hands of the US Forest Service has been continually cut back over the decades, particularly by Republican governments. At the same time, revenue the US forest service once gained through allowing logging has largely withered due to conservation efforts relating to endangered species, most notably, the famed spotted owl. We now compensate for the loss of California timber harvesting by importing lumber from British Colombia. The resulting cut in revenue to the US Forest Service has led to unmanaged federal lands without under-burning or thinning through selective harvesting. Thus, increases in amount of fuel per acre in national forests have created optimum conditions for catastrophic fires.
Trump’s mismanagement claim, and his threat to cut funding, can only be seen in a cynically political light. On one hand, Trump has shown his disdain for government land protections; he reduced federal land in Utah, and pardoned arsonists who set BLM land alight in 2016 after a long-time dispute over rights to the land. On the other hand, Trump’s blaming of California for mismanagement of federal forests may be motivated by his unpopularity in the state. The latter was the opinion of Dr. Ahlstrom who wondered why there are never threats against those who have built homes in low coastal lands in largely Republican regions that are often impacted by hurricanes and the like.
As we discussed the politics of forest management, Dr. Ahlstrom redirected me to the science behind the fires in Paradise, California. He explained that the conditions that led to the current fire we are experiencing come from a high-pressure system that developed in the flats lands of Nevada and Utah. Air pressure, naturally travelling from high to low pressure areas, has created down-slope wind, a rarity in the Paradise area. The winds associated with this type of system can travel at forty miles per hour, laying waste to virtually anything in its path once the fire is set, regardless of any human efforts to thin trees and vegetation. In short, there is nothing anyone could have done to pre-emptively contain a fire started in the Paradise area. Dr. Ahlstrom explained that the bottom line of the Paradise issue is it does not matter what measures have been taken with those conditions.
After talking at some length about the Paradise fire in Northern California, we turned our attention to the Southern California fires. Much of national media seems to report on California fires as if the state is one big forest. It seems that perhaps the president thinks so as well. The fires in Southern California, however, are remarkably different. The hills in the south are mostly grasses and brush. The vegetation is typical to Mediterranean climates, with waxy-leafed shrubbery and scattered oaks. There is no forest to manage, but an environment that has been prone to fires for hundreds of years, long before the first Europeans arrived in this part of the continent.
Dr. Ahlstrom, who grew up in Chatsworth down in Southern California recalled a conversation he had with his grandfather as a child. He had asked his grandfather what they used to do about the regular fires in the area when he was a kid. The land would go alight in its cycle of burn-and-regrow, and the farmers would just plough around their farms. The fires would burn hundreds of square miles of land, going over the mountains and straight to the ocean. This phenomenon often takes place during the autumn months when that part of California experiences the Santa Ana winds, common slope winds that can exceed forty miles per hour. Dr. Ahlstrom emphatically said the Southern California fires have nothing to do with forest management, and in that regard, President Trump, “doesn’t know his ear from a hole in the ground.” There is literally nothing to be done to prevent fires in this type of wind condition. While it is conceivable to do controlled burning, most of the land is privately owned and people are reluctant to catch their own properties on fire, especially when fire in thick brush can get out of hand quickly.
What the fires in Paradise and Southern California have in common is that they threaten a lot of homes and lives—and this is a relatively new development in the history of California, which has experienced a population boom in the last fifty years, roughly doubling in size. Places like Malibu, where fires once regularly blew through without resistance are now decorated with multi-million-dollar homes. Even extremely rural areas like Paradise have experienced exponential population growth over the years, and this has translated to serious implications of fire suppression efforts. The efforts to preserve homes and lives are far more resource-intensive than those required to contain simple wildfires.
This brings me to the other gorilla in the room, Trump’s exclamation of, “no more Fed payments.” With the relative ease to establishing the fact that the fires aren’t a product of California mismanagement, this just seems like victim blaming. Moreover, it is wholly unfair, especially since we aren’t spending time blaming the fine people of Louisiana and east Texas for the coastal devastation we have come to regularly expect in that part of the country. It is scandalous that the president would threaten to withhold federal aid when California pays more than it receives back in federal taxes—it is our money! For every dollar Californians pay in federal taxes, only about 78 cents come back. Compare that to Louisiana, a state that gets back $1.40 for every dollar of federal tax money paid. Mississippi receives more than two dollars for every dollar paid in federal taxes! Simply put, there is no legitimate reason for the president to make such a threat other than to play punitive politics.
But we are having a horrible fire season! There must be a reason for it. Is it global warming? Well, according to Dr. Ahlstrom, the potential for damage gets worse every year as we move more people into forest and brush covered areas. Not only are humans a dangerous variable (we start a lot of fires) but more homes mean “bigger fires” with more property damage and loss of human life. Adding to the problem, dead brush and trees tend to build up in forested areas where humans live; this is precisely because in populated areas we are aggressively fighting natural fires that would normally clear this fuel source. Of course, Dr. Ahlstrom told me that global warming will impact the duration of droughts and create more difficult fires. However, at the moment the local weather is within normal limits for the state. Yes, global warming is real and is a threat, but we aren’t really seeing that the fires this season are conclusively the result of climate change.
Now, some reading this might think that Dr. Ahlstrom is some crazy tree-hugging liberal who hates America. I even asked him if this was the case, and he laughed. The truth is, this is someone I know very well and respect. I would actually describe him as a conservative person, but more of a pragmatist than anything. In his work at CDF he was friendly with timber lobbyists who thought he was unduly harsh from time to time, while the environmentalists accused him of not doing enough. I know he has some conservative political leanings as well, but the Republican party has moved away from conservatism in favour of somewhat thoughtless and impulsive right-wing nationalism. The Republicans have left deliberatively-thinking scientists behind in favour of reactionary politics.
The President of the United States has once again shown that he is completely untethered to the truth and prone to a bombastic impulse for cruelty. Of course, we have seen the meanness with his name-calling of women, mockery of people with disabilities, and demeaning a former POW who spent years of his life in service to the US. Once again he is showing his penchant for schoolyard bullying by making threats against those who are suffering from natural disaster. Of course, his claims vis-à-visCalifornia’s lack of forest management are little more than the fanciful nonsense we have come to expect from the most powerful man in the world. In reality, we need comprehensive plans to deal with fires in California. We need to work with the federal government, and we need to find a way to work around Trump.
Californians need to accept the fact that California is a fire-prone state, and work to create local fuel reduction laws. Unfortunately, the downside of being part of this imperfect Union is that we are reliant on a distant congress to preserve our forest system. Citizens of this most populous state must engage our national lawmakers, urging them to accept their crucial role. We need to be focused on fuel reduction, and the only way that is going to happen is if we can work with the US forest service to thin wilderness areas with a commitment to preserving our beloved California fauna. Going forward, we must be realistic how and where we are building our homes in this great state. After all, you cannot fight mother nature.