‘Clear trees,’ he tweeted

August 20, 2018

Ralph Maughan

Trump doesn’t like California. He thinks It’s a place where illegal immigrants gave “Crooked” Hillary 3-6 million illegal votes, where motor vehicles are scheduled to pollute less than they should (but not if he can help it), and where, according to two recent tweets, we must “clear trees” to deal with wildfire. He also wrote that California doesn’t have enough water to fight wildfires because the state diverts water out of its rivers and into the Pacific Ocean unused.

It’s tempting to just call him “stupid” with lots of unprintable modifiers and let it go at that. Sadly though, when he’s criticized for tweets, he often then doubles down on his witlessness, and he has.

He needs to understand that California does not divert water out of its rivers to flow unused to the Pacific. If anything, it is the opposite. California dries up its rivers, like the Colorado, by using all the water (along with Arizona) so it never gets to the ocean. In addition, wildfires are not fought primarily by water at all. Fire retardant slurries dropped by air, construction of fire lines, and setting backfires are the important major techniques.

Big wildfires in a hot droughty summer can never be put out. It is impossible. It requires a large weather change. Instead, firefighters try to contain the fire by fire lines and backburns. They try to steer the fire toward a defensible line. This might be a rocky area, a river, lake, or road. There might be irrigated grass or crops that do not provide fuel for the fire. Unfortunately, this is often not possible or successful.

To make sense of his musings, California’s and other Republicans are fixing and refining Trump’s message into what they wanted him to say to the public. Trump has also deployed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to try to make the issue about failure to remove dead trees rather than preparing a real strategy for the future that’s on our doorstep where the fires burn and burn.

Trump confused an ongoing water allocation issue in California with the issue of what’s causing the wildfires. They are entirely separate. He has probably been told by lobbyists and Republicans in Congress about these issues but he didn’t understand them or pay attention.

Here is the political situation in California. The details are complicated, but in brief, rural California is Republican. It is outweighed by Democratic urban California.

Big growers (Republicans) in southern California’s Central Valley want to take more water from the much used Sacramento/San Joaquin River and other rivers too. This is not allowed by the existing legal allocation of the water. The allocation provides water for urban interests and for non-farming interests like water in the rivers for commercial and recreational fisheries, wildlife, endangered species and keeping San Francisco Bay from becoming stagnant. Everyone wishes there was more water. The ag interests would like a bigger allocation, but the current laws and rules stop the big growers from taking water.

The California state legislature supports the existing legal division of the waters. Republicans in the U.S. House want to use federal law to push a larger share to agriculture. They like to say the issue is over a silly little endangered fish, but it is much, much more. If one side gains, the other loses. They are trying to obscure this to the public.

Back to the wildfires. Every summer, California timber interests use wildfires to push the idea that increased logging on the national forests would retard or even prevent the fires. The timber interests in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, etc., sing this song too every fire year.

However, look at the videos of the California fires both in northern California (Redding and Clear Lake) and southern California. What is burning? Is it mostly big trees valuable for lumber? Is it dead trees? No. All kinds of things are aflame, but the majority is small trees and brush. For traditional logging, these are money losers to timber companies. They want greater access to the good, mature timber on our public lands, but that is usually not what fuels the wildfires.

There is no economy in cutting trees 3-4 inches in diameter and smaller. It can be done only when the taxpayer pays for it. What kind of vegetation is the most likely to resist wildfire? It’s the big, juicy tall timber, but that’s what the timber industry lusts after. Furthermore, in a drought with the temperature near 100, just about every tree or plant that is touched by a flame readily burns.

Thinned forest under these conditions is just as flammable as forest abused by unwise past management that resulted too many small trees. Clear cuts are kind of like small meadows, but they are usually drier and often contain small trees. In this and recent fire seasons, the wildfires blast across clear cuts (Trump’s “clear trees?”) and into the woods or brush on the other side.

Almost all the California office holders are dismissing Trumps “clear trees” as too vague to even understand. More Democrats and some Republicans are talking about the need for preventive “vegetation management” such as the proven ineffective thinning stands of trees and reduction of downed wood and brush by setting “controlled” or “prescribed” burns during the time of year when fire does not burn so fast and hot that it escapes control.

These are not new ideas. They have been used for some time in California and the rest of the West too, but not to the extent they might have. Controlled burns are not much of an answer now with longer fire seasons with hotter temperatures. There is often little season left for conducting controlled burns. The very first fire in the forests of central Idaho that got out of control this summer was a controlled burn that escaped when the weather abruptly turned hot. California now seems to have an almost 12-month long fire season. The fire season is longer everywhere.

Much of the political talk is about wildfire on the national forests, but this is very misleading because most of the monetary damage from the fires is to privately owned buildings such as homes, outbuildings, recreational cabins nestled down in the trees. These are by definition on private land. The major share of the cost of fighting the fire is preventing these structures from burning. It should not be the Forest Service’s burden.

Whether these burn is far more determined by whether or not trees and brush have been cleared for a hundred feet around the structures (called “defensible space”); whether the roofs are metal instead of something flammable; and the same with the siding. These changes to the fire-endangered structures are the cost-effective prevention, not expensive ineffective thinning miles away on top of the mountain.

Much of the problem is not just the materials in the homes, but building homes in fire prone places to start with. Look at the suburbs just west of Redding, California that burned (Google Earth street view works for this). They were pretty places tucked away in the forest that extended up into the mountains. They were also in a terrible place to build.

Then on the day the Carr fire burned the outskirt subdivisions like Shasta and then into Redding itself the high temperature was 113 degrees!

The same point was made by the Tubbs Fire at Santa Rosa, CA last October. That is not summertime. The fire claimed 5200 structures and 22 lives. These homes extended from Santa Rosa all the way up to Calistoga in the hills (not national forest). In four or five hours in the middle of the night, the fire which began near Calistoga, burned for miles down the hills and into Santa Rosa, killing people and destroying houses all the way. This area had burned in the historic past, but then homes were few to none. Recent news stories indicate that some people are not rebuilding in the path of Tubbs and other fires, but this method of dealing with houses in fire prone areas is very slow to make significant changes.

The fires of California and other Western states too send smoke across the United States and out into the Atlantic. Smoke is especially dense in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Idaho every summer. Now it extends into fall and soon perhaps even winter.

Our Pocatello skies were hazy from the Tubbs and the dozen other fires burning in California in October 2017. In the summer hazy and just plain dirty air is now commonplace in Pocatello. Recall that last August ash fell in Pocatello from the big wildfire that began in Arbon Valley and was controlled just before it reached the divide near Kinport Peak and City Creek.

When I began writing about the Idaho and Wyoming outdoors (trail guides beginning in the late 1970s), large wildfires were uncommon. August was dustier than the rest of the summer, but widespread fire smoke did not happen here or in the backcountry I visited. I saw the change beginning in 1980 with the then-huge Mortar Creek fire and other fires in and near the River of No Return Wilderness. It chased us in our rafts down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, burning our camps each day after we left. I thought I’d never see a fire like that again, but it was just the beginning.

Nowadays, I don’t use the outdoors in the summer much later early July, and it could get worse yet, even in this close to record hot and dry summer. There just needs to be some lightning to do it.

The changed climate is not the fault of Californians because it is worldwide. The climate has changed in Idaho too, although I believe so far not to the same extent. Global warming denialism, which is much more concentrated in Republican politicians than among the American people, is like passing out cigarettes to advanced lung cancer patients and telling them they are just fine.

Ironically, the populated places in California and elsewhere in the West that are burning are more likely to be Republican areas. That’s because they are often more rural, but also because people with higher than average incomes have built most of the houses in the forest and brushlands on the slopes of California mountainsides.

In an interview in Fox Business Thursday Interior secretary Ryan Zinke said the problem in the California wildfires isn’t climate change. It’s the “120 million dead trees sitting in California’s forests.”

It looks to me that the solution of the problem in Trump and Zinke’s view is to let the Republican voters burn instead of taking any effective action. Neither of them even bothered to send their thoughts and prayers.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with his wife Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is currently president of the Western Watersheds Project.

Update hourly