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Trump's water policy tweets spur debate, confusion amid record wildfires

A U.S. Air Force plane drops fire retardant on a burning hillside in the Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

As the Mendocino Complex Fire continues to rage across Northern California, debate continues over why wildfires have become such a problem in the state, what can be done to control and prevent them, and what President Donald Trump was talking about when he blamed the current fires on the misuse of water.

The Mendocino Complex Fire, made up of the River Fire and the Ranch Fire, is now the biggest blaze in recent California history. As of Tuesday morning, fire officials reported the River Fire was 78 percent contained with nearly 50,000 acres burned, but the Ranch Fire was only 20 percent contained and sprawled across more than 240,000 acres.

By midday Tuesday, the fires covered a combined area nearly the size of the city of Los Angeles. No civilian deaths or injuries have been reported so far, but 75 residences have been destroyed and full containment of the fire is not expected until September. There are about a dozen other fires currently burning throughout the state as well.

As the struggle to slow the fires’ spread dragged on over the weekend, President Trump pointed his finger at a puzzling target. In tweets posted Sunday and Monday, he claimed the wildfires have been exacerbated by “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s office said Trump’s tweets did not merit a response, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said firefighters have all the water they need.

“Let’s be clear: It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires,” Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler told the Washington Post.

The White House has not elaborated on Trump’s water tweets. The best guess experts have been able to come up with is that he is conflating a long-running debate over the amount of water that should be diverted from rivers for farmers with the effort to use water to extinguish the fires.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released a proposal to “maximize water deliveries” to the southern half of the state by directing more water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Environmentalists slammed that proposal as a threat to endangered fish species, but farmers applauded it as a fulfillment of the president’s campaign promises.

“You have a water problem that is so insane, so ridiculous where they are taking the water and shoving it out to sea,” Trump said at a May 2016 rally in Fresno.

Last month, the California Water Resources Control Board voted to direct more of the state’s water resources to preserving fish populations, angering farmers who would have access to less water as a result. If implemented, the plan would significantly cut the amount of water diverted from the Tuolumne, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced Rivers for urban and agricultural use.

Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have railed against California officials in the past for routing too much water toward the ocean at the expense of the agriculture sector. Republicans who represent the state’s rural regions in Congress have voiced similar concerns.

During a July press conference with Zinke in California, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., warned pushing more water out into the ocean could be devastating for farmers.

“It will dry up agriculture. It will dry up our communities,” Denham said.

Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., welcomed the president weighing in on water policy Monday, even if it was in the service of a somewhat jumbled wildfire argument.

“Thx @realDonaldTrump for bringing much needed attention to our flawed environmental policies!” tweeted Nunes. “Forests should be managed properly and water should be allowed for farmers to grow food to feed people. Thx for supporting the people of San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains!”

Democrats accused Trump of misleading the public to take political advantage of a natural disaster.

“#CA needs smart water policy and compassionate disaster relief. We must use a scientific and rational approach to these catastrophes, and not use these disasters to further special interests and ideologies,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., on Twitter.

Trump speaks often of his support for farmers, but lawmakers from agriculture-heavy districts have heard from constituents nervous about the president’s trade policies and the ramifications of retaliatory tariffs on their products. The water tweets could be an effort to shore up support in those communities.

However, Darry Sragow, a longtime California Democratic strategist, was skeptical Trump can improve his standing among voters in the state, two-thirds of whom disapprove of him, with an ill-informed swing at Gov. Brown’s environmental policies.

“So far as I know, he has no understanding of the water issues in California, no understanding of the threat we face from fires in the wake of global warming, and no credibility on either issue,” Sragow said. “His hard core base of supporters in California, just like everywhere across the nation, will like whatever he says, no matter what. But most voters and policy makers will note what he has said and move on.”

Whatever the outcome of the simmering standoff between the federal and state governments over the flow of water through the delta, experts and officials say it has nothing to do with the wildfires.

“I’m not even sure what he’s talking about,” said John Bailey, an associate professor of forest engineering, resources, and management at Oregon State University.

Farmers have complained about insufficient water resources in the state for a long time, according to Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, but the amount an aerial tanker can lift out of a body of water barely makes a dent in the supply.

“The notion that dropping water on forest fires somehow aggravates a water shortage is just plain crazy because we’re simply not capable of dumping more than a miniscule fraction of California’s water from the air onto forest fires,” he said.

Gov. Brown’s office and Cal Fire have pointed at climate change as a primary driver of the of the state’s escalating forest fires. There are other factors as well, some of which are outside humanity’s control.

Amir AghaKouchak, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine, recently co-authored a study in “Science Advances” showing that regions facing drought conditions have warmed four times faster than parts of the country with average weather conditions. That combined effect of heat waves and droughts is contributing to an uptick in the severity of wildfires in California.

“Fires are getting more frequent, more intense,” he said. “Not only that, the fire season is changing.”

Until the Mendocino Complex Fire surpassed it, the largest fire in California history was the Thomas Fire that occurred last December, demonstrating that intense blazes can now ignite during any season.

“Basically, they have a fire year now,” Bailey said.

Stahl acknowledged the weather in California is changing, but he questioned whether evidence establishes that is a result of man-made climate change. Arguing that climate can be affected by cyclical changes in ocean conditions, he pointed to a similar period in the mid-20th century when the land was dry and temperatures were high.

“Do we have more fire weather as a result of climate change? Yes, probably,” he said. “Is it climate change that resulted from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or is it the same kind of climate change that led to the 1930s dust bowl?”

There were two main components to Trump’s wildfire tweets. Experts dismissed the part about water policy as misinformed nonsense, but his complaint about clearing out dead trees may hold some merit. The buildup of dried out vegetation over decades provides fuel for the flames and it may at this point create an insurmountable challenge for forest management officials.

“The fire departments around the country take all kinds of measures to reduce the risk, but it’s kind of expensive,” AghaKouchak said.

According to Stahl, clearing out trees and brush by hand on the 80 million acres of public land in California would be “astronomically expensive,” and it would need to be repeated every 10 to 20 years. Instead, it may be necessary to triage and focus on cleaning up the areas closest to homes and communities.

“One of the big things people have done is changed fire itself,” Stahl said. “We put out about 98 percent of all ignitions before the fire gets very big. That allows the vegetation that fire would have removed to keep growing… Eventually one of those ignitions becomes part of the 2 percent we aren’t able to put out.”

Bailey suggested wood can be utilized more efficiently as a resource and protecting it from fire is not always the right decision.

“There are things we can do that our ancestors did for thousands of years to manage the fuel,” he said.

Our ancestors also did not build homes in areas increasingly prone to catching fire. Stahl observed similar problems have arisen in the Gulf region where housing and urban development has stretched into areas that flood frequently.

It may be too late to stop people from living in these places, but the risk can be mitigated by measures like building houses from materials more capable of withstanding fire. Stahl has seen some effort in the San Diego area toward constructing more resilient homes where residents could shelter in place through a fire.

“We have built environments, we have created housing developments where the houses are more flammable than the most drought-stricken brush and forests that surround them,” he said.

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