Indefinitely Wild

Trump’s Wall Fight Will Worsen California Wildfires

The shutdown is hampering fire prevention efforts in the state, even while the President looks to disaster-relief funds for his wall

A scene from Paradise, California. (Stuart Palley)

President Trump renewed his fight with California this week by claiming that fire prevention in the state is inadequate. He even went so far as to threaten withdrawing federal aid from victims of the Camp Fire and other high-profile disasters.

But while he tweets one thing, the President’s actions are actually making the situation in California worse. Not only is the shutdown hampering federal fire-prevention efforts in the state, the Trump administration is also looking to divert funds earmarked for wildfire victims toward construction of the proposed wall on the southern border. 

The President has repeatedly claimed that inadequate forest management is to blame for California’s disastrous wildfires. Yet of the 33 million acres of forest in the state, 19 million acres (57 percent) are managed by the federal government. Only three percent of forests in California are managed by the state. The Camp Fire—one of the most expensive natural disasters in American history—started on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. 

Two of the most effective tools for preventing wildfire are controlled burns and mechanical thinning. It’s dry brush, not large, mature trees, that starts fires, so removing that brush is essential both for preventing blazes and minimizing their impacts. This could have been what Trump was referencing when he talked about the need to “rake” California's forests. 

The USFS had plans to burn and thin 250,000 acres in California this year, but those plans are currently on hold due to the partial shutdown. This could be particularly problematic given the timing: controlled burns can only be conducted in the winter, when rains have soaked vegetation enough that the risk of the blazes spreading out of control is minimized. “There are also many elements of nature that must be just right to meet the objectives of controlled burning, from both dead and live fuel moistures, [to] air temperature, to wind speed and humidity,” the USFS states on its website. “This is referred to as the ‘burn window,’ the preplanned condition targeted for burning.”

Well, it’s winter, and several large storms have passed through California during the past three weeks. So far this month, 2.7 inches of rain have fallen in Butte County, where the Camp Fire burned last year. If controlled burns are to take place in the area, now’s the time to do it. But at least 33 percent of USFS staff are currently furloughed, including personnel who should be conducting those burns. With wildfires in California occurring earlier and earlier in the year due to climate change, the window to conduct those burns will likely close in March. 

I spoke to one Forest Service hotshot from California, on condition of anonymity. “We have missed multiple opportunities to conduct controlled burns this year due to the shutdown,” he told me. “President Trump criticized us for not doing a good enough job of fuels reduction, yet here we are, not allowed to do fuels reduction. We’re pissed.”

I asked the hotshot if the shutdown will result in increased risk of wildfires this summer. “Yes,” he responded simply. 

“The window for conducting prescribed burns is getting shorter each year, even while the funds to conduct them are instead being used to fight fires during the summer,” says Stuart Palley, who works as a contract photographer for the Forest Service. During his work shooting blazes in the state, he’s developed friendships with many firefighters and he tells me that many of them in low-risk areas are currently furloughed, preventing them from conducting everything from fire mitigation efforts to the hiring of the seasonal staff who will become necessary in the summer. “We are absolutely going to see the results of this shutdown come fire season,” he says. 

Even while fire prevention efforts are being hampered by the fight over the wall, the administration is looking at pulling funding from victims of last year’s fires in order to pay for it. According to reporting in the The New York Times, the Trump administration identified a $13.9-billion allocation to the Army Corps of Engineers [USACE] as a possible source of funding to construct the wall, if the President declares a state of emergency in order to do so. If we follow that budget to California, it’s what’s paying for the construction of temporary housing for victims of the Camp Fire, as well as the removal of debris from what was once the town of Paradise. 

There, the USACE is supposed to construct temporary housing for fire victims and remove the ruins of burned-out structures and vehicles. “USACE has deployed a team of engineers and subject matter experts from across the nation to the California State Emergency Operations Center to support the State and FEMA in the wildfire recovery efforts,” a statement explains.  “Under its current mission assignments from FEMA, USACE is assisting with the design for temporary housing sites for residents displaced by the fires. USACE is also developing plans for a temporary debris handling facility that will support the State’s debris removal efforts by staging, reducing and transporting non-hazardous material (concrete and metal) for recycling and disposal.”

In Butte County, 52,000 people were left homeless by the Camp Fire. Since the end of November, many of those victims have been living in shelters and tents. FEMA is distributing housing aid, but a severe shortage of rental properties means that many victims simply have nowhere to go. The construction of temporary housing is designed to give these people safe places to live while they settle insurance claims or seek other arrangements. Raiding USACE’s construction funds to build the wall could derail this project. Without the housing, at least 1,500 victims of the Camp Fire will remain homeless. 

Frustration was clear in the voices of everyone I spoke to while researching this story. But it was Palley who articulated it the best. “It’s unconscionable that both the victims of these disasters, plus the people who risk their lives to fight them are currently being used as political pawns by our government,” he said. 

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