Fact Check: Would forest management get rid of CA wildfires?

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP)


President Donald Trump said in the presidential debate Tuesday night that California wildfires would not be happening if the state had better forest management, a claim that is misleading for multiple reasons.

Trump said during the debate with Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden that he gets calls every year about the California wildfires and the state needing emergency help.

“If you had good forest management you wouldn’t be getting those calls,” he said. He acknowledged that climate change might contribute, but insisted that proper forest management would be enough.

Scientists have agreed that climate change is a major reason the wildfires in the state have gotten worse, and the majority of the forests of the state are owned by the federal government, not the state government.

California has seen the worst year for wildfires on record, far outpacing even the previous worst year. In recent days, wildfires have ravaged California’s wine country, which is not known for forested terrain.

More than 3.6 million acres have burned in California so far this year, more than half of the total 7 million acres that burned between 2001 and 2010.

Eight of the 10 largest fires in California history have burned in the past decade.

There are multiple reasons for that, including climate change, more needed forest management and homes creeping into higher risk areas. But some Republicans downplay or even deny that climate change plays a role, despite overwhelming scientific agreement on the matter.

Trump visited California recently, meeting with state officials to discuss the impact and solutions to California’s wildfire crisis. California officials repeatedly pressed Trump to acknowledge that climate change played a role in increased wildfire risk, to which Trump said “it’ll start getting cooler.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” responded California Natural Resource Secretary Wade Crawfoot.

“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump said.

Temperatures in California have steadily risen by about three degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, which is even faster than temperatures in the rest of the U.S. While it may sound small, it means snows in Northern California are melting sooner, leaving trees without moisture for longer periods of the year, and the air is drying out faster, which sucks more moisture out of plants and trees. Plants and trees devoid of moisture will die, becoming easy tinder for wildfires.

More than 150 million trees have died in California since 2010.

That means fires, once they start, will typically spread further and more quickly. And since 57 percent of California’s forests are owned by the federal government – 19 million acres of 33 million acres of forests – officials can’t do enough forest management to keep up with the pace that trees are dying.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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