As California burns Trump threatens cuts and outrages the firefighters
A wildfire burns a structure near Malibu Lake. | Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

WASHINGTON—As California’s ferocious wildfires continued to burn north of Sacramento and near Los Angeles, GOP President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold disaster aid from the Golden State because – in so many words – the state government mismanaged the forests outraged first responders and state officials.

Trump’s threat, enunciated in yet another ranting tweet, came as the death toll from the fires rose to at least 55, with at least 100 more people missing, and with tens of thousands of homes and businesses, over more than 209,000 acres statewide, destroyed.  Most of the damage has been in Butte, Los Angeles, and Ventura Counties.

Some 250,000 people have fled the fires, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, and more than 8,000 Fire Fighters, led by members of the California Professional Firefighters (CPF), the state affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters, are battling the flames – even as some of those CAFF members have lost their own homes to the blazes.

The blazes also wrecked the homes of motion picture luminaires in Malibu and forced airlines to divert, delay or reschedule flights into and out of Los Angeles area and San Francisco area airports.

In one example, passengers on a plane to San Francisco from Denver were delayed on the ground in Colorado for four hours on Nov. 9 because the thick smoke drifting down from Sacramento effectively closed San Francisco airport’s runways. In another, USA Today reported at least one person who lost loved ones in the mass shooting the week before in Thousand Oaks spent her time – and stalled off her grief – helping rescue people in Ventura County.

Trump’s tweet reflected none of this, though he later added another tweet praising the first responders.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump fumed. “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!”

IAFF President Harold Schaitberger, CPF President Brian Rice and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) all had caustic responses to the Oval Office’s occupant’s rant.

Schaitberger called Trump’s tweet, “irresponsible, reckless and insulting…criticizing the work being done” by first responders. While Fire Fighters and civilians are still in harm’s way, the president even suggested cutting off necessary funding to keep Americans safe.” They also insult the fires’ victims.

“The early moments of fires such as these are a critical time when lives are lost, entire communities are wiped off the map, and our members are injured or killed trying to stop these monstrous wildfires. To minimize the crucial, life-saving work being done and to make crass suggestions such as cutting off funding during a time of crisis shows a troubling lack of real comprehension about the disaster at hand and the dangerous job our Fire Fighters do,” said Schaitberger.

Brown called the fires “the new abnormal,” and pointed out his state has suffered through years of drought.

“Natural disasters are not “red” or “blue” – they destroy regardless of party,” Rice declared. “Right now, families are in mourning, thousands have lost homes, and a quarter-million Americans have been forced to flee. At this desperate time, we would encourage the president to offer support in word and deed, instead of recrimination and blame,” Rice said, after agreeing with Schaitberger’s characterization of Trump’s tweeted threat.

Rice not only denounced Trump’s threat but noted the huge amounts of acreage, in national parks – where private logging is banned – and national forests – where it is allowed – under federal control. The feds own some 60 percent of California’s forests, double the private share. Yet Trump tried to cut federal firefighting funds. Congress reversed that move.

“The president’s message attacking California and threatening to withhold aid to the victims of the cataclysmic fires is ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines,” Rice said. “At a time when our every effort should be focused on vanquishing the destructive fires and helping the victims, the president has chosen instead to issue an uninformed political threat aimed squarely at the innocent victims of these cataclysmic fires.”

“The president’s assertion California’s forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong. Wildfires are sparked and spread not only in forested areas but in populated areas and open fields fueled by parched vegetation, high winds, low humidity, and geography.”

Trump’s denial of the impact of human-caused climate change is part of the problem, the governor said on Nov. 11.

“Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change — and those that deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedy,’’ Brown said. “The chickens are coming home to roost. This is real here.”

“Things like this will be part of our future … things like this, and worse,’’ he warned. “That’s why it’s so important to take steps to help communities, to do prevention and adaptation.”

Ironically the Forest Service, which is part of USDA, has raised the issue of capitalism run amok and resulting mismanagement of the nation’s forests, before. The same questions could also be raised about leaving overall land use planning in completely private hands, as noted economist Henry George did in the last 1800s.

“The American record of land misuse is almost unparalleled. Our forest lands, which constitute almost one-third of the area of the continental United States, are a striking example. Today three-fourths of them – and four-fifths of the most valuable commercial forest lands — are in private ownership,” the Forest Service writer said.

“‘This is ours,’ they said ‘to do with as we please.’ And wasted acres and burned empires have been the result. Unfortunately, they are only part of the nation’s record of forest-land misuse….Forest exploitation has laid its blight on individuals and communities. Its effects have eaten more deeply into the national fabric. For with forests cleared from hillsides, rains have run off quickly and floods have increased. Topsoil has eroded from fertile acres. Streams, dams and harbors have loaded up with silt. Property has been damaged and destroyed.”

The author was R.F. Hammatt, assistant to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, writing in Forestry and Permanent Prosperity – in 1936.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.