Capitol Alert

Trump cabinet officials to inspect California fire damage

Gov. Jerry Brown tours the destruction of the Carr Fire near Redding

Gov. Jerry Brown has a press conference and toured the wildfire destruction of the Carr Fire near Redding, Calif. on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018.
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Gov. Jerry Brown has a press conference and toured the wildfire destruction of the Carr Fire near Redding, Calif. on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018.

Two Trump cabinet officials are heading to Northern California next week to meet with officials working to contain the deadly Carr Fire, as the administration seeks to show its helping to fight this and other blazes ravaging the state.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue will travel to Redding on Monday for a series of meetings and briefings with fire crews and local leaders, including a walk through of parts of the city that have been damaged by the fire. Redding Mayor Kristin Schreder, local business leaders and other officials have been invited to join the meetings.

The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, while the Department of Agriculture manages the National Forest Service, which collectively oversee much of the federal land in California. The two departments have been working to better coordinate their firefighting activities, a bureaucratic challenge in a state like California, where various federal agencies manage more than 46 million acres of land across the state.

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area are among the areas that have been affected by the Carr Fire, which has killed 8 people and forced tens of thousands to evacuate. The fired was 48 percent contained as of midday Thursday, according to Cal Fire.

President Donald Trump approved a major disaster declaration for Shasta County as a result of the blaze, paving the way for federal aid for the fire’s victims. But president also drew controversy when he Tweeted earlier this week that the state’s environmental laws exacerbated the fires burning across the state. “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized,” Trump Tweeted on Aug. 5. “It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.”

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean, however, told The Bee earlier this week that the firefighting agency has “plenty of water.”

Zinke made no mention of water access in an op-ed he wrote for USA Today Wednesday on the extreme fires ripping through the Western United States. But he did skewer “radical environmentalists” for opposing forest management efforts, which include tactics like prescribed burns, forest thinning and logging to clear overgrown forests of excess vegetation and dead trees. CalFire noted on its web site that “heavy timber and fuel loading have challenged firefighting efforts” to contain the Carr Fire.

Environmentalists “make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts,” Zinke wrote, “because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground.”

Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, is making his second trip to California to survey fire damage this summer. On July 21, he and Republican Rep. Tom McClintock visited the incident command post for the Ferguson Fire just outside of Yosemite National Park. There, too, he urged officials to focus more attention on dead tree and brush removal to keep fires from spreading amidst the dry and hot conditions. As Zinke pointed out in his op-ed he “signed a Secretarial Order mandating aggressive fuels management” — as dead trees and brush are called — after he took over at the Interior Department in 2017.

The Trump administration, however, has sought tens of millions of cuts to Interior Department and USDA budgets that help fund forest management activities. And many on the left complain the president’s systematic rollback of environmental protections will worsen climate change, which scientists say has contributed to the hot, dry conditions bedeviling California and other Western states.

Speaking at a dinner with business leaders on Wednesday, the president expressed his support for the families that have lost loved ones in the California fires, and said his administration was working closely with state and local authorities. “It’s been a very tough situation taking place in California for a number of years,” he added. “And we’re going to have to have some meetings about it, because there are reasons and there are things you can do to mitigate what’s happening.”

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