On Friday afternoon, as several counties across California were being incinerated by late-season wildfires, President Donald Trump signed a declaration providing federal money for the emergency response. But the president clearly wasn’t happy about it. About 10 hours later, he made a threat: If California goes up in flames like this again, he might just let it burn.
At the very moment Trump sent his Saturday morning tweet, the Camp Fire in Butte County was actively burning homes to the ground, and the 27,000 residents of Paradise, California were only beginning to take stock of their massive losses. Mere hours beforehand, thousands were fleeing the city in panic, many abandoning their cars and running through the woods to escape the rapidly-encroaching heat and suffocating smoke. Several people died. By Monday, the Camp Fire had become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.
A few hundred miles south, the rapidly spreading Woolsey Fire and the nearby Hill Fire had just started picking up speed. When Trump sent his tweet, at least 75,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties were under evacuation order. By Monday, that number had ballooned to 200,000. With only 20 percent of the fire contained, nearly 400 structures had been destroyed.
The death toll from the fires is still on the rise. So far, two have been found dead in the path of the Hill Fire, according to the Associated Press. And as of Monday, the Camp Fire had killed at least 29 people—though more than 200 remain unaccounted for. By the time the flames die down, thousands of people will have lost family and friends. A similar number will have lost their homes, and potentially everything they own.
That Trump would threaten California in the midst of this tragedy is, on its own, an act of cruelty. But his tweet was also plain wrong. He complained that the “costly” blazes wouldn’t have happened were it not for “gross mismanagement of the forests.” But there’s no dense forest surrounding the cities hit hardest by the fires. “The area that’s burned is not particularly foresty; it’s brush,” said Sharon McNary, a reporter for Southern California Public Radio. “It’s classic brush fire territory.” The Pasadena Firefighters Association also corrected the president:
It’s true that forest management is a problem in California. The state’s forests have more than 100 million dead trees, providing more fuel for wildfires. But that’s as much the federal government’s fault as it is California’s. The U.S. Forest Service is supposed to help clear the trees, but historically has had to spend most of its budget on fighting fires. Trump has signed legislation to give the Forest Service an additional $2 billion to manage forests, but that doesn’t go into effect until 2020.
Regardless, poor forest management isn’t to blame for the severity of these particular fires. That honor goes to the weather. “Forest management has nothing to do with mountain winds coming down the passes at 70 miles per hour, or humidity levels in one hour dropping Thursday from 35 percent down into single digits, dryer than most deserts,” CNN meteorologist Tom Sater explained on Sunday. And weather like this is already becoming more likely in California due to climate change.
There’s also the problem of rapid urban sprawl within the Wildland-Urban Interface, where forests and other undeveloped lands meet areas inhabited by humans. There are approximately 45 million homes in these interfaces across the country, and the Forest Service expects that number will rise another 40 percent by 2030. “If there is a vulnerability here, it’s the people who live in this area who built in the Wildland-Urban Interface and not the forest management itself,” McNary said.
Saturday wasn’t the first time Trump has offered a false explanation for a devastating wildfire. This past summer, he tweeted that firefighters in California didn’t have access to enough water to fight wildfires, a claim that stupefied firefighters. It also wasn’t the first time that Trump has attacked Americans amid tragedy: Just weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, in a series of tweets, he called the island’s electrical grid and infrastructure a “disaster” and said that the government “cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
But Trump’s tweet on Saturday was a new low—simultaneously ignorant and inhumane. Since then, he has seesawed between words of concern and complaint. A tweet on Saturday evening, in which he finally expressed sadness for the wildfire victims, suggested that he had come to regret his misinformed, and obviously partisan, attack on Californian authorities.
Or perhaps not. By Sunday morning, he was back to business as usual.
And on Monday—perhaps due to a growing backlash from firefighters, a blue-collar constituency he claims to represent—Trump finally thanked them for their heroism.
It’s only a matter of time before he complains about forest management again.