President Donald Trump blamed California again for its horrific wildfire season Wednesday and threatened to withhold federal fire assistance from the state.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Trump lashed out at California’s forestry management practices, saying they’re costing federal taxpayers “hundreds of billions of dollars.”
“Old trees are sitting there, rotting and drying,” he said, according to a report on The Hill. “And instead of cleaning it up, they don’t touch them, they leave them. And we end up with these massive fires that we’re paying hundreds of billions of dollars for to fix, and the destruction is incredible.”
State officials, however, said Trump is overlooking California’s ramped-up efforts to thin out its forests and reduce wildfire risk. Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said his agency has taken applications for more than $300 million worth of grants since August for forest-thinning projects. “Look at what we’re doing, look at the big picture,” he said.
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The agency also persuaded lawmakers to add another $234 million in emergency funding for fire suppression in September, increasing the agency’s budget for firefighting by 50 percent. “We’re pretty self reliant,” McLean said.
It was the second time this year that Trump has blasted California over wildfires, which have burned more than 1 million acres of land so far this year. In late August he tweeted that California’s environmental laws are preventing water from being used for dousing flames — a claim ridiculed by state officials.
It wasn’t immediately clear which funds Trump was threatening to withhold. McLean said the state often gets reimbursed by the feds for up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting major fires, although he didn’t know how much the state expects to receive this year.
The president in early August also issued a “major disaster declaration” for California, making money available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration and the Department of Agriculture. It wasn’t known how much of that money has actually reached California.
Trump’s comments revived an ongoing controversy about forest management. During a trip to Redding in August, shortly after the deadly Carr Fire, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said radical environmental groups have been able to block common-sense forest-thinning projects. But forestry industry officials dismissed Zinke’s claim and told The Sacramento Bee they’ve been able to find common ground with many environmental groups on projects that reduce fire risks in forests.
In addition, experts note that the federal government — not the state — owns much of the forested lands in California. The Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, controls more than 20 million acres of California forests. That’s more than half of all the forests in the state.