Over the past two weekends, as two major wildfires devastated communities in Northern and Southern California, President Donald Trump has inaccurately blamed the state’s forest management practices for the blazes. He has also wrongly said that raking — a method he attributed to Finland — could have solved the problem.
Trump has a history of critiquing California for its frequent wildfires, but his latest comments started with an early morning tweet on Nov. 10, two days after the two fires began:
There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
The next day, Trump followed up with another tweet:
With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2018
This past weekend, the president continued with the theme, announcing on his way to California that he would be talking with Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom about forest management, adding, “I’ve been saying that for a long time. And this could have been a lot different situation.”
While forest management can be an important element in certain wildfires, Trump’s claim that forest management is solely or even largely responsible for these fires is false. Experts told us neither of the wildfires are true forest fires, and wind was a presiding factor that quickly spread the flames. Dry, hot conditions — both of which are exacerbated by climate change — made the fires possible and gave them extra life. Humans, too, were contributors, by living and building in areas prone to fires.
The two wildfires in question are the Woolsey Fire outside of Los Angeles in Southern California and the innocuous-sounding Camp Fire near the town of Paradise in Northern California. As of this writing, the Woolsey Fire has killed three people, destroyed 1,500 structures and consumed nearly 100,000 acres. The Camp Fire has killed 79 people and claimed more than 15,000 buildings across 150,000 acres, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Hundreds of people are also missing.
Trump blundered again during his visit to Northern California, when he singled out Finland’s forest management practices and suggested raking to prevent fires.
Trump, Nov. 17: You have to take care of the floors, you know, the floors of the forest, very important. You look at other countries where they do it differently and it’s a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he said we have a, we’re a forest nation — he called it a forest nation — and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t have any problem. And when it is, it’s a very small problem.
Finland does have fewer severe forest fires, but they do not rake as a fire prevention method, and raking would not have prevented the fires in California. Finnish forests are also very different from the California ecosystems that are burning, making the comparison invalid.
We’ve discussed the science of wildfires before. But in light of Trump’s repeated claims, we’re taking another look, and we’ll explain why Trump’s focus on forest management in this case is misplaced.
The Ecosystem Matters
One of the president’s key mistakes, scientists said, was failing to consider the particular ecosystems of the current fires.
The Woolsey Fire that hit Malibu and the surrounding area, for example, is not a forest fire. It’s burning chaparral, a woody shrubland that University of Arizona disturbance ecologist and postdoctoral researcher Erica Newman said is almost completely treeless.
As a result, forest management methods, which include tree thinning, or the selective removal of smaller trees, and prescribed burns — often in combination — aren’t exactly relevant.
Those practices can be helpful in other areas, such as California’s Sierra mixed conifer forests, Newman said. The forests there have generally not burned enough over the last century, thanks to decades of fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service, and tree thinning and prescribed fire can mitigate some of the risk.
The basic idea with management is to reduce the amount of material that can burn, or what scientists call fuels, so that any resulting fire will have less fuel and spread less quickly. This helps avoid the most intense fires that harm forests and are the most dangerous to humans.
Chaparral, though, is a different story. Not only are there no trees to manage, but Newman said doing vegetation management on chaparral is likely to exacerbate the problem.
“Managing California chaparral, whether with fire, cutting, or mechanical removal like mastication, leads to degradation of the ecosystem,” she told us in an email. “Management of any type causes fire risk to increase, because non-native grasses invade, introducing fine fuels into the ecosystem that are more ignitable.”
Philip Dennison, a geographer and fire scientist with the University of Utah who has previously studied fires in Southern California, agreed that poor management was not at fault in the Woolsey Fire. Instead, wind was a driving factor.
“It jumped the 101 freeway eight lanes wide with no problem,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s really no management that would have helped.”
The Camp Fire in Northern California is different from the Woolsey Fire. Trees were involved in the Camp Fire, but it was not a true forest fire, either. Most experts told us management had little or nothing to do with how the fire manifested.
One of the reasons to do tree thinning is to prevent smaller trees from serving as “ladder fuels” that allow fire to spread to the canopies of large trees. But Newman told us the majority of the area burning in the Camp Fire isn’t the kind of crowded, closed-canopy forest that benefits from such treatment.
The region there contains multiple ecosystems, including Ponderosa pines at high elevations, chaparral and other forest types, such as oak woodlands lower down, and some grasslands. Many of the ecosystems, she added, are heavily invaded with ornamental plants and non-native grasses that affect fire behavior.
The Ponderosa pines can be managed with thinning and prescribed burning, Newman said, but the area had previously been logged, and as Dennison pointed out, there were two wildfires in 2008 that would have already greatly reduced the fuel load.
Further treatment would be unlikely to do anything, Newman explained, because the wind was so strong. In these types of wind-driven fires, she said, many thousands of embers are thrown up ahead — sometimes as far as a mile or more — and these create many new blazes. This dramatic and far-flung transfer means the fire will spread regardless of efforts to reduce the number of fuels or to create breaks in the environment.
“In 80 mile per hour winds, the overall sparseness and ‘managedness’ of the vegetation will not prevent embers from reaching additional flammable things,” she said.
As evidence, Newman points to the pictures of the Camp Fire scene, which often show houses reduced to ash, but nearby trees and shrubs intact. This suggests that in many cases, the fire wasn’t spreading from neighboring vegetation, as it might in a more typical fire, but rather from other buildings.
Chris Dicus, a professor of fire science at Cal Poly, took a different view from Newman, and said that additional tree thinning or logging might have helped slow the intensity of the fire’s spread before it reached the town of Paradise. But he also acknowledged the dominant role of wind. “Even if you’ve done everything,” he said, “when you have hot, dry winds pushing through these landscapes, it’s going to burn through.”
The scientists we consulted were careful to note that there is no single reason for wildfires, and that was no less true of the California cases here.
As we’ve written before, there’s a distinction between what provides the literal spark to a wildfire, and the overall conditions that enable the fire to become a disaster.
In terms of the spark, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told us in an email that it’s “nearly certain” that both the Woolsey and Camp Fires were caused in some way by human activity. Lightning, he said, is the only natural culprit, and thunderstorms were not present for weeks before the blazes began. Both fires remain under investigation, but there are already suspicions that the Camp Fire may have started from damaged power lines.
As for the conditions, Swain pointed to a combination of weather and climate.
“In the case of both the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire,” he said, “strong and dry land-to-sea (‘offshore’) winds were a major factor in pushing these fires rapidly down slopes and canyons into populated regions.”
These Santa Ana and Santa Ana-like winds typically peak in late fall, so they’re expected. But this year the vegetation was especially dry: The summer was one of the warmest on record, and the rainy season, which usually kicks into gear by mid-October — especially in the north — was late.
Although climate change can’t be tied to any particular fire, Swain said it can make several of these contributing factors more extreme, and in that way, acts as “threat multiplier.”
“Climate trends are taking pre-existing wildfire hazards that are already quite high in many regions and amplifying them well beyond what they would be otherwise,” he said. For example, in California, the fire season is now starting earlier and ending later because of hotter temperatures and a shortening raining season.
“All else being equal, warming temperatures and longer dry seasons mean that vegetation is drier and more flammable than it would be otherwise,” Swain added. “And in California specifically, there is an increasing chance that the dangerous offshore wind season in autumn coincides with summer-like dryness.”
The other essential component in all of this is humans.
Wildfires, of course, would still happen in California with or without humans. But Swain said people are increasingly building homes and towns in high wildfire risk zones, or what scientists term the wildland-urban interface. And this makes it more likely that when a fire happens, it will have a major impact on communities.
The Case of Finland
In perhaps the oddest chapter of all of Trump’s comments on wildfires, the president invoked Finland, and said the Finnish president had told him they “spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t have any problem.”
While it’s true that Finland has surprisingly few forest fires for a nation that’s 75 percent forest, it’s not attributable to raking.
Timo Kuuluvainen, a forest scientist at the University of Helsinki, told us emphatically via email, “Raking is not done in forests!!!” A representative of the Finnish Interior Ministry, which is responsible for wildfire management, has also said that raking does not occur, and the Finnish president has stated that he never told Trump that his country rakes.
Newman, the disturbance ecologist at the University of Arizona, was not familiar with raking as a fire prevention technique beyond the raking a person might do around their house or yard, which, she said, would remain “a very local and small-scale effort.”
The White House did not respond to our questions about the president’s remarks on the California wildfires. But based on Trump’s description, Newman said it’s possible he could be thinking of a mop-up, which happens after a fire has already burned through an area. To keep a fire from spreading, firefighters use rakes and garden hoe- and ax-like tools, combined with water hoses, to squelch hot embers and extinguish any remaining pockets of fire. While this is helpful, it doesn’t stop fires from happening in the first place, and is part of containment.
Forest management in Finland, Kuuluvainen explained, is primarily tree thinning, with a very small amount of prescribed fire. The country also sponsors an airplane monitoring system that operates during dry spells, and a vast network of forest roads on flat terrain make it easy for voluntary fire brigades to rapidly snuff out any fires.
But any success Finland has had in reducing the number of severe wildfires is not very relevant to the United States because the climate is so different. “[Finland] is much colder, and supports very different, moister vegetation that is not as prone to drying out and burning,” said Newman. The Nordic country, she noted, is between 60 and 70 degrees latitude, which is farther north than anywhere in the U.S. except Alaska. Finland also benefits from a landscape peppered with lakes and swamps that serve as natural barriers and can prevent fires from spreading. All of these features mean Finland’s fire risk is naturally much lower than California’s.
“Comparison is impossible,” Kuuluvainen said, “because the ecosystems and weather conditions are totally different.”
Fire is Forever
The other sticking point for many of the fire experts we spoke to was Trump’s insinuation that wildfires can be eliminated from California. The reality is that even with ideal fire management, the state will always have them.
“Fire is part of California’s ecosystem,” said Dennison, “and it’s impossible to remove.”
Maureen Kennedy, a fire ecologist at the University of Washington Tacoma, agreed. “Fires have always occurred and will always continue to occur,” she said in a phone interview.
To think otherwise is potentially dangerous because it assumes our tools work better than they actually do. Even in the forests that can benefit from thinning and prescribed burning, Kennedy explained that the goal is not to stop wildfire, but to change its distribution, shifting the most intense flames to places further away from humans.
And many of the most effective methods, at least in terms of saving lives and communities, are likely to have less to do with trying to control fire, and more to do with fireproofing homes in vulnerable areas and changing where people live.
As an international group of scientists warned in a 2014 review in the journal Nature, “Unless people view and plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious consequences for both social and ecological systems.”