Majority of California's forests managed by feds; scientist says mismanagement isn't to blame

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The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has nothing public to say about President Trump’s weekend tweet blaming the state’s wildfires on poor forest management. And a retired forest scientist said the president's finger-pointing is off-base and inaccurate.

“We’re not responding,” CalFire spokesman Scott McLean told KTVU on Monday, two days after Trump also threatened to withhold federal funding to California because of this “gross mismanagement.” “We have a big job to do. We’re protecting the citizens of California. We’re not responding to him.” 

On Saturday, Trump tweeted: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!,” he added.

In terms of which entity manages the forests in California, the federal government, manages more land than the state of California. The federal government manages 57 percent of the forests in California, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. The state manages 2 percent. Private owners are responsible for 39 percent.

In addition, Peter Stine, a retired research scientist for the US Forest Service in Davis, Calif. told KTVU on Monday that land mismanagement is not the reason the Camp Fire has burned so destructively in Butte County, northeast of Sacramento.

Stine acknowledged that more forest thinning and prescribed burns could indeed take place throughout the state and country in targeted areas.

But in the case of the Camp Fire, the massive wildfire that has destroyed 6,500 buildings and killed 29 people, started near or on federal land at the very lower boundary of the Plumas National Forest, an area which mostly shrubland and a bit of pine forest. The winds blew the fire to the west, which burned through predominantly shrubs, oaks and grass. CalFire listed the origin of the fire at Pulga Road at Camp Creek Road near Jarbo Gap.

As the fire has spread, the vast majority of land that has burned so far is in private ownership, Stine said. Therefore, managing the land and vegetation in that area is up to the individual landowner, Stine said. Plus, managing the state’s 7.5 million acres of shrubs is not likely feasible at all. 

“Do you know how much shrubland there is in California?” Stine asked rhetorically. “If we were to try to periodically remove shrubs across the entire state we would need a budget similar to our military let alone the ecological damage this would create.” On the federal level, Stine said that the US Forest Service budget has remained flat the last 20 years, but the money to fight fires has risen dramatically, while the federal funds deployed to manage the lands has decreased. 

Then, in Southern California, the Woolsey Fire also didn't start in a forest; it started on E. Street and Alfa Road, south of Simi Valley. 

Portions of California are periodically consumed by fire, made worse by seven months of no rain, winds gusting at more than 50 mph and fuel moisture levels that are perilously low.

All this is made worse, Stine said, with global warming, which he urged the president to pay more attention to. 

Even with all the land management in the world, Stine said, “we live in  state where fire is inevitable.”

Late Monday, Trump apparently had a change of heart, though it's unclear what changed his mind. He tweeted sympathy for the victims of the California wildfires, where 42 people have since died, and declared federal funds would be forthcoming.