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California wildfires: Is Trump right when he blames forest managers?

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President Trump has blamed “poor forest management” in California for the wildfires that have swept across the state.

In a couple of tweets, he has suggested that the state has not managed its forests properly, despite receiving “billions of dollars” each year.

The comments came shortly after he issued an emergency declaration to allow US federal government funds to be used to tackle three blazes in the state. There was an angry response from firefighters, including the president of the California Professional Firefighters, who said the assertion forest management policy was to blame was “dangerously wrong”.

The International Federation of Firefighters – which represents members across the US and Canada – attacked President Trump for suggesting he might cut off funding.

Some of those fighting the recent fires have also pointed out that fires have started in open scrub or grassland rather than in forests.

The comments have also been criticised by some experts who say they ignore the bigger picture of climate change and population shifts in the state.

But is there any substance in the president’s remarks about forest management?
Who manages California’s forest?

Nearly 60% of California’s forested areas are managed by national agencies such as the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks service.

And there’s a significant amount in private hands as well.

The actual amount managed by the California state authorities is small – but the California Department of Fire and Forestry Protection is responsible for putting out fires and prevention measures in privately owned areas. The national agencies have funds set aside for managing the land they own:

The US Forest Service has a budget of $4.73bn (£3.64bn) for 2018, of which $2.4bn is for “fire suppression and preparedness”
The Bureau of Land Management had a budget of $1.3bn in 2017, although it’s not clear how much was for forest management or fire prevention
The National Parks Service’s anticipated budget for 2019 is $2.2bn, with $289.2m for “resource stewardship”

We don’t know exactly what amounts are spent on measures to reduce fire risk on land they manage in California.

But concerns have been voiced about whether there’s been enough emphasis on longer-term fire prevention.

Scott Stephens, a leading authority on wildfires at the University of California, has for some years been questioning forest management priorities.

He believes more focus needs to be put on more on sensible management of the environment and better land use to avoid “catastrophic burning”.

He has also pointed to the large number of dead trees in parts of the state, due to drought and disease, as a serious fire risk that needs to be addressed.

Tom Bonnicksen, professor of forest science at Texas A&M University, says the real issue is that there are too many trees in California’s forests, which he told the BBC was the “underlying cause of the wildfire crisis”.

He believes forests need to be thinned out.
How could forests be managed differently?

Prof Stefan Doerr, at Swansea University, says the modern policy of putting out all fires in wild areas may have been misguided.

For centuries, Native American peoples would burn parts of the forest so they could hunt or gather plants that grow in the cleared areas and that would thin out the more flammable vegetation and make forests less dense.

“But in the recent century or so, the emphasis has been on putting out any fires – and with climate change this has now created a tinderbox of vegetation,” Prof Doerr told BBC News.

The case for allowing controlled fires to clear out vegetation also applies to other types of landscape such grass and shrub land, according to another expert.

Even though they have no trees, these areas would also benefit from burning out potentially flammable material, the argument goes. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46183690

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