President Donald Trump, pointing a finger at a persistent political nemesis, said this week that California’s wildfires are costing American taxpayers “hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The true cost is a sliver of that.
Although a full accounting won’t be available for months, a review of federal data shows that the U.S. government has spent about $1.4 billion the past two years dealing with wildfires in California.
That figure includes nearly $900 million disbursed by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help state and local governments, and individual Californians, cope with the aftermath of fire disasters.
It also includes $771 million spent by the U.S. Forest Service in the past two fiscal years on firefighting efforts in national forests in California — lands owned and operated by the federal government.
What the figure doesn’t include is funding FEMA is expected to give California to help fight this year’s devastating wildfires under the feds’ Fire Management Assistance Grants program. The program partially reimburses state and local governments for the costs of mobilization and logistics when major fires hit. FEMA reimbursed the state $4.7 million for the 2017 fires but the payments for this year’s fires won’t be known until next spring, said FEMA spokeswoman Brandi Richard.
All in all, the federal government spent a total of $2.9 billion fighting fires across the entire country in 2017, according to figures compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center. That includes money spent by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and other federal agencies.
The cost of fighting California wildfires pales in comparison to the federal government’s expenditures on other major disasters in recent years.
Notably, Hurricane Harvey, which tore though Houston and surrounding areas of the Gulf Coast in fall 2017, cost FEMA more than $3.3 billion in direct assistance to individuals and communities, including funds for projects designed to reduce the impacts of future disasters. The figure doesn’t include the $8.5 billion in claims paid to property owners under the National Flood Insurance Program.
California officials have been quick to push back on Trump’s remarks, saying the state has been dipping into its own treasury to cover many of the rising costs of wildfires. In September, Cal Fire obtained an additional $234 million from the Legislature after chewing through practically all of its firefighting budget in the first two months of the fiscal year.
“We’re pretty self reliant,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.
Experts said Trump’s comments ignore a basic truism of California’s forests: The federal government, through the Forest Service, controls more than 20 million acres of forest property, about one-fifth of the state’s total land mass. The state owns a mere 730,000 acres, according to a report by the Little Hoover Commission.
“We don’t own the forests in California, the federal government does,” said LeRoy Westerling, a climatologist and forestry expert at UC Merced. Much of the rest of the forested land is in private hands.
Trump, who’s routinely fought California over climate change, immigration and other issues since taking office, sounded off on the costs of California wildfires during a cabinet meeting this week.
“I think California ought to get their act together and clean up their forests and manage their forests,” said Trump, according to a report in The Hill. “It’s costing our country hundreds of billions of dollars because of incompetence in California.”
The Trump administration has been saying for weeks that California’s devastating fires are largely caused by environmental extremists preventing common-sense efforts to “thin” the forests by removing excess trees. The president suggested that his administration could withhold federal firefighting dollars from California unless the state does a better job reducing tree densities.
State officials, though, say California is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to thinning forests.
Westerling said the federal government is generally doing a poor job of reducing fire risks in forests. In a typical year, the Forest Service treats just 1 percent of the forested land it owns in California, he said. The agency “should be doing at least five times that per year to start to get ahead of the problem,” he said.