Scientists say California’s record wildfires have been fed by an abnormally hot and dry fire season made worse by climate change, but the Trump administration insists there’s another culprit: environmentalists and their policies.
“Radical environmentalists” should shoulder some of the blame for pushing back against “active forest management,” policies that include mechanical thinning and timber harvest to reduce the risks of wildfires, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote in an op-ed in USA Today.
Zinke acknowledged the fires were burning hotter and more intensely due to hot and dry weather, without explicitly attributing it to climate change.
President Donald Trump earlier this week tweeted that the fires that have killed at least seven people and consumed more than 500,000 acres of land are being made worse by “bad environmental laws.” It’s an assertion that many environmentalists and scientists reject — especially as they say his administration works to dismantle international efforts to combat climate change.
“Zinke, like Trump, continues to deny the obvious. It is climate change that is exacerbating wildfire season in the West,” said Kirin Kennedy, associate director for lands and water legislative policy at Sierra Club. “The long-term safety of homes, businesses and families in the path of these fires relies on cutting climate pollution — something wholly at odds with Secretary Zinke’s push to drill, mine and frack every possible acre of our parks and public lands.”
Trump started blaming environmentalists earlier this week. “Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” Trump tweeted, apparently referencing an unrelated agricultural dispute involving the amount of water from snow melt in the Sierra’s being allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean to sustain fish populations in rivers and keep saltwater out of drinking supplies rather than being used to irrigate farmland.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross picked up on that theme, saying he’s directed the National Marine Fisheries Service to “facilitate access to the water needed to fight the ongoing wildfires affecting the state of California.”
He also pledged to find “new solutions to address threatened and endangered species in the context of the challenging water management situation in California,” Ross said in a statement that drew criticism from environmentalists.
“Moving to increase logging and weaken protections for endangered species like salmon risks local and outdoor economies and ignores the need to reduce climate pollution, which is absolutely essential to ensuring the long-term safety of our communities.” the Sierra Club’s Kennedy said in a statement.
California’s fire service says there’s no shortage of water.
“We have no water issues the real issue is explosive fire growth due to climate change,” Mike Mohler, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an email. Two of the biggest fires are near lakes that are being used to obtain water, according to the department.
Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, said key contributors to the worsening wildfires are increased temperatures and drought due to human-caused climate change.
“Trump is trying to eliminate regulations designed to combat human-caused climate change, and to scuttle international efforts to deal with climate change,” Mann said in an email. “So the problem isn’t environmental regulations. It’s his (and enabling congressional Republicans’) efforts to dismantle environmental regulations.”
Zinke argued in the opinion piece that when authorities “try to thin forests of dead and dying timber, or we try to sustainably harvest timber from dense and fire-prone areas, we are attacked with frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”
“The buildup of fuels is the condition we can and must reverse through active forest management like prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and timber harvests,” he wrote.
While experts consider forest thinning — a policy advocated for by the timber industry — a valid way to reduce the risk of wildfires, many of the fires in California are taking place where thinning already occurred, said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
“The relationship is not as easy as he describes it,” Miller said in a phone interview.
On Tuesday, speaking to reporters from his resort in New Jersey, Trump pledged to help protect people in the path of the fires.
“We’re deeply grateful to our incredible firefighters and first responders,” Trump said. “They’re really brave people.”
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