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CALIFORNIA | Wildfires

Firefighters throw cold water on Trump's wildfire theories

Caroline Floyd

Monday, November 12, 2018, 4:40 PM - As some of the most deadly and destructive fires in California's history continue to rage across parts of the state, firefighters, forestry officials and even celebrities have taken to twitter to rage against what many have called misinformed statements coming from U.S. President Trump.

With the so-called Camp Fire in Northern California and the Woolsey and Hill Fires in Southern California exploding over the weekend to collectively consume more than 200,000 acres, the president took to Twitter several times to criticize California's forest management, blaming "gross mismanagement" for the deadly blazes.

(Related: Hundreds missing in California's deadliest fires on record)

These claims were swiftly rebutted by firefighters and researchers alike, who claim that forest management is only one component in mitigating the impacts of wildfires, particularly in California, as the state deals with record-breaking drought and other impacts from the changing climate.

The California Professional Firefighters (CPF) association also issued a statement calling the president's claims "ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning."


A blanket term that covers a number of the ways we interact with forests, forest management's primary goals are largely split between conservation and economics -- the need to care for forests to make sure they stay healthy, and to maintain biodiversity, while still allowing for economic development, like logging and other industries. Preventing forest fires is a component in both of those goals.

Fires need 'food' to burn; in the case of forest fires that means trees, of course, but also undergrowth and debris (like fallen logs). Controlling that fuel by removing it, rearranging it, or even burning it deliberately to create fire lines all falls into a forest management plan. 'Mismanagement', then, could include things like allowing forests to become overgrown, or not allowing any natural burning to occur (and thereby allowing debris to build up over time, giving fires more fuel to work with when they eventually do spark.


(See also: Massive California fires may have this impact on Canada)


With some fires in the state, it might be. But it's far from the main ingredient in California's fire problem, and it's nothing at all to do with either the current Camp Fire, or the massive Tubbs Fire that scorched Napa and the wine country last year, according to experts. And the Woolsey Fire raging through Malibu isn't even in a forest; the ground cover is largely grassland and a kind of shrub land known as chaparral.

"The president’s assertion that California’s forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong," reads the release from The CPF. "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. Moreover, nearly 60 percent of California forests are under federal management, and another one-third under private control. It is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California."


So what is going on here? A lot of experts are pointing the finger at an obvious issue -- the ongoing extreme drought in California, now into its fifth year. Coupled with the late arrival of this autumn's 'rainy season', we're looking at -- quite literally -- tinder-dry grasslands and forests, ready to ignite with any spark.

In the area battling the devastating Camp Fire, summer 2018 was also warmer than any prior to 2014, said climate scientist Daniel Swain, noting 4 of the 5 warmest on record have occurred in the past 5 years. "Cumulative effect of warmth over many months also helped to dry out vegetation more than would otherwise have been the case," Swain added.

Added to that, downsloping winds from the Sierra Nevada, including the infamous Santa Ana Wind, have not only helped to spread fires at staggering speed, but serve to further reduce the relative humidity of the region, and in turn dry potential wildfire fuel even further. The winds also help 'push' fires to spread. Strong gusts exacerbate chaotic fire behaviour, fanning the flames and carrying sparks much further than they might otherwise travel.

Sources: CPF | Slate | Mashable | LA Times | Independent |


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