3 reasons Trump is wrong about California’s deadly fires, and one reason he may be right

3 reasons Trump is wrong about California’s deadly fires, and one reason he may be right
© Getty Images

In California, the Camp Fire has become the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Near Los Angeles, the Woolsey fire has also been raging, destroying over 435 structures, including some celebrity homes.  As the affected communities and the nation as whole were taking in this growing disaster, President TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE tweeted a message casting blame for the fires to “poor” state forest management and threatening to withhold payments as a result.

Unfortunately, this has created a new center of gravity for discussing these ongoing wildfires. But there may also be a silver lining that is helpful to how we understand and prepare for disasters generally, and wildfires specifically, if we are willing to take a closer at what in the president’s “statement” is nonsense, and what is worthy of discussion.

Presidential leadership matters

The most important thing for a president to do in a disaster is to bring communities together for a common purpose. This includes those impacted as well as the community of agencies at the federal, state and local levels of government.

Infighting, placing blame and threatening funding without adequate information and analysis forces agencies to spend energy arguing policy that is important in the long term, but a distraction while homes are still burning. By blaming the victims and polarizing the debate along thinly veiled partisan lines it also precludes a more robust discussion of the underlying issues. It may also stymie the flow of resources to the areas affected if the rhetoric of discussion is inherently political and not substantive.

Climate change is real, and more places will burn because of it 

Completely absent from the president’s attribution of blame was any discussion of climate change, and policies his administration has taken to roll-back regulations that could potentially prevent these kinds of disasters from continuing to worsen into the future. While it is difficult to attribute any single event to climate change, it has been established that human-caused climate change is likely directly related to the increase in wildfires like the ones we are seeing in California.

Ignoring, denying and rescinding measures to mitigate against this important truth creates harm to future responders and communities. But the approach of many in opposition to this administration, to uniformly blame the cause of all disasters on climate change, is also over-simplified and dangerously wrong. Climate change can be a contributor and an amplifier, but it does not work alone in making a disaster.

State’s don’t manage federal or private land

It is an extreme over-simplification to assert that this is an issue with state forest management. Particularly since federal lands account for many of California’s worst fires. And in fact, more than half of the state’s forests are managed federally, with only 3 percent under state and local management. The rest are in the hands of individuals, companies and Native American tribes. Many fires affect areas of forest that have multiple overseers. This highlights how disasters don’t respect jurisdictions, ownership or politics. They just spread.

Additionally, large disasters almost never have a single cause, but include a constellation of contributing factors aligning at the right time and place to cause the most damage. I suspect that the after action analysis for these fires will find both local and systemic lessons learned.

However, the notion that we make ourselves vulnerable through non-disaster policies and practices is where the president might have a point.

We construct our vulnerability

Disasters are a multiplier of the threat and the vulnerability. The threat is the fire, storm, flood, infectious disease, terrorist attack or infrastructure failure. The vulnerability is where and how we choose to build, how we structure our communities, how we manage development to be sustainable, or ignore sustainability for short-term growth.  

For the current fires, aggressive fire suppression strategies, coupled with climate change, population shifts and other environmental policies may have amplified the threat and the vulnerability. But it is too early for diagnosis. These are complex issues that require careful analysis. But it is also not wrong to suggest that forest management needs to be re-examined as part of this process.

Of course, this is not what the president actually said.

Addressing the factors that make disasters, and how to build a more resilient nation is worthy of a real discussion in a forum than allows for more than 280 character monologues. There should be better use of research, analysis and non-partisan investigation through independent agencies like the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and even establishing a bipartisan panel to review the increasing costs and impacts of disasters in a more thorough and disciplined manner. Better funding vehicles for disaster research will also help build a stronger evidence base for developing disaster policy and guiding response and recovery.

For now, the first order of business is to put the fires out and help communities and survivors through the long process of recovering and rebuilding to be more resilient to future disasters. The actions we take beyond that will define the legacy of these fires a generation from now as either a turning point in our thinking, or as another line in an infographic showing previous record-breaking disasters.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute (NCDP). Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel.