Are Environmental Laws to Blame for California's Wildfires?

credit: NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images | Part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, August 5, 2018.

A certain Commander in Chief says that wildfires are being made 'so much worse by the bad environmental laws.' Here's what's really happening.

California is on fire. Again. Of the 20 largest fires since accurate records have been kept, 15 of them have taken place since the year 2000. Anyone who has lived in California knows about fire season, but the last few years have seen fires like never before.

Many experts are agreeing that the effects of climate change are to blame. California is hotter and drier than ever; the last five years have been among the hottest in 124 years of record keeping, and July broke all kinds of heat records for the state.

Is it any wonder that the fires are burning so ferociously?

But what is one supposed to make of all this is they don't believe in climate change? Say, they think climate change is a “con job,” a “myth” or a “hoax”? Blame the environmentalists, of course. Which is what President Trump did via Twitter on July 5. He wrote:

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. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!

Has the man been watching Chinatown lately?

Thankfully, Michael Hiltzik sorts out this curious reasoning for us in a story for the Los Angeles Times.

Rather than taking his cues from old films about illegal water diversion, Trump may have been listening to Republican officeholders in the agricultural areas of the Central Valley, Hiltzik explains. "They’re the people who grouse about water being 'wasted' by being diverted to the ocean, rather than into their fields."

Last month, the California State Water Resources Control Board created a plan to increase water flows into the San Joaquin River, which yes, eventually empties into the Pacific. The reason they are doing this is because so much water has been pumped into the valley for agricultural irrigation that the river ecosystem is in a state of ruin and the salmon fishery has basically collapsed. Water in Northern California naturally flows to the Pacific, it’s the irrigation and urban users who have “diverted” it, Hiltzik points out.

And even so, LACK OF WATER HAS NOT BEEN A PROBLEM IN FIGHTING THE FIRES. Excuse me for shouting, but seriously.

Fire agencies have distinctly not been begging for water. Dousing flames with water is not the only way wildfires are fought; fighting wildfires is about topography, constructing physical fire breaks, and fire retardant dropped from aircraft. In addition, the crazy fires are all near major reservoirs; the Carr fire has Lake Shasta and Whiskeytown Lake, the Mendocino Complex fire has Clear Lake. All of which are currently nice and full.

“There have been no issues getting water from them,” Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) told Hiltzik.

Or, as Peter Gleick – president emeritus of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland – said:

“The idea that there isn’t enough water is the craziest thing in the world, There’s absolutely no shortage.”

As for the second part of the tweet, no one can really be sure what "tree clear" is supposed to mean. Hiltzik offers some suggestions. It could mean more logging, which actually would be in line with the president's proclivity for exploiting natural resources. It could mean the construction of fire breaks, which is an approach that is being actively used. Or it could mean clearing of the underbrush that can fuel wildfires, which is a complicated issue of which much of the policy would fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government since many of these areas are in national forest ... yet there is no sign of addressing this in any federal government policy statement.

In the end, all we're left with is someone weaponizing a tremendous, heartbreaking disaster in order to bully a state known for its progressive environmental leadership. Whether through ignorance of the facts or one of the other mysterious motivations that make the Twitter fingers twitch, it is hard to know. But blaming made-up factors instead of facing the reality feels like a very strange and dangerous tack to take.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Trump "twittered" while California burned. Some things never change.

fire of rome

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert (1785)/Public Domain

For more, read Hiltzik's whole piece here: In a strikingly ignorant tweet, Trump gets almost everything about California wildfires wrong