Reversing course on his threat to cut the state’s federal funding if Californians don’t solve their forest-fire problem, President Donald Trump now says he’ll solve it with them, and suggested one idea.
Reversing course on his threat to cut the state’s federal funding if Californians don’t solve their forest-fire problem, President Donald Trump now says he’ll solve it with them.
“We go through this every year; we can’t go through this,” Trump said Saturday as he toured the state’s massive wildfire zones. “We’re going to have safe forests.”
How to make California’s vast drought-stricken forests “safe” after the Camp fire grew to the size of Chicago this month, killing dozens if not hundreds of people and burning an entire town to the ground? Trump promised federal funds and says he has some ideas.
One of those ideas is raking. It’s not a popular idea.
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“You’ve got to take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forests, it’s very important,” Trump said amid the charred ruins of Paradise — his first stop on the tour.
Trump went on to explain that the president of Finland, whom he met on an overseas trip a week earlier, told him about raking the forest floors. “He called it a forest nation,” Trump said, “and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.”
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto later disputed this. He told a local newspaper that he had briefed Trump on Finland’s efforts to surveil and care for its forests, The Associated Press wrote, “but said he can’t recall anything being mentioned on raking.”
Raking for leaves and needles is not a normal feature of Finnish fire prevention, according to Rami Ruuska, a forest-fires expert at the Finnish Interior Ministry. Instead, Finns focus on removing dead trees from the forest floor — where possible.
The secret to the Finns’ forest-management system lies instead in its early-warning system, aerial-surveillance system and network of forest roads, said Professor Henrik Lindberg, a forest-fires researcher at the Häme University of Applied Sciences, in southern Finland.
Local aviation clubs are paid to fly over the most threatened areas of forest, increasing the likelihood fires will be spotted before they spiral out of control.
And timber and paper companies have built an extensive network of roads through Finland’s forests. Built primarily to make the landscape more accessible for logging, they also slow down the path of a fire — and allow fire brigades to reach the flames faster.
Temperatures in Finland, part of which lies within the Arctic Circle, can drop below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in August, the temperature is usually in the mid-60s.
The incendiary risk is therefore much lower for most of the year in Finland than in California, where high temperatures, dry air and frequent wind make wildfires far more likely.
“It’s not a good comparison,” Ruuska said.
In addition, the trees aren’t the same.
Finnish forests are mainly filled with tall boreal trees — pine, spruce and birch — whereas much of Californian vegetation consists of lower-lying chaparral shrub land and small trees, which are more prone to catching fire.
“The whole comparison is a bit wild,” said Lindberg, who suggested that it would be better to study methods in Mediterranean Europe, where forests are more like those in California.
The domestic reception of Trump’s idea wasn’t much better.
“If preventing wildfires were as easy as raking leaves, we would have done that by now, but it is a very complicated issue.” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., told MSNBC on Sunday, mentioning climate change, dry weather and high winds.
“I hope the president consults some experts, maybe talks to folks who actually know something about wildfires, and really stop believing these bizarre theories that he has.”
This is not to say that raking has nothing to do with fire prevention — even if it’s not the exotic and comprehensive solution Trump made it sound like.
“His general sentiment is correct — that we need to manage fuels,” said Yana Valachovic, a forest adviser with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension program. “And each year, managing that pine litter adjacent to our homes and buildings is super important. … But the reality is, to manage every little bit of fuel with a rake is not practical.”
Raking is an effective way to clear light debris like leaves and pine needles away from residences, she said. It’s of much less use on the forest floor, where infernos burn through swaths of brush and other heavy fuels that only heavy machinery can clear.
California’s problems are complicated, Valachovic said — a combination of hot, dry climates, poor community design and “100 years of fire suppression” that helped turn forests into tinder boxes.
Like Trump, Valachovic said the problem is solvable — but through long-term programs of community education, controlled burns, forest-thinning programs and economic incentives.