In 2008, the year I started college, a wildfire burned down 210 homes in nearby Montecito, CA. I was on the eighth floor of my dorm building, and standing out on the exterior staircase we could see the flames ripping through the hills above town. The Tea Fire was one of thousands of fires in a particularly devastating year, the worst on record in decades, the year that everyone in California woke up to the fact that this would be our new reality. Every year is like that now.
Today, Donald Trump announced that he would withhold federal emergency funding to the state of California “unless they get their act together,” repeating the lie that the fires are caused by poor forest management. In the first version of the tweet he misspelled “forest.” It’s unclear why he thinks this is a winning political position—he’s wrong about the cause of the majority of the fires—but he’s hammered the point home over and over again since the Camp Fire killed at least 86 people and burned nearly 14,000 homes last November.
What this is is an open “fuck you” to California. There’s really nothing else to it. The Federal government operates the majority of California’s forests, not the state. FEMA funding after wildfires is vital for thousands of displaced families, some of whom spent the days after the most recent fires huddled in makeshift refugee camps in a Wal-Mart parking lot. FEMA grants, per its website, cover temporary housing, home repairs, low-cost loans and several other programs, as well as providing for cost-sharing with local governments and nonprofits who fight the fires and rebuild after they’re out.
The department has already given out $180 million in grants and loans, but it’s unclear from Trump’s tweet if they will continue in any capacity. I reached out to FEMA to ask and got an automated response saying that FEMA would “continue to provide services and resources” to those who have been “deemed eligible for assistance” during the shutdown, but which didn’t address the tweet this morning. A spokesman followed up shortly after to say that they would get back to me ASAP. I’ll update this story if they do.
It is not California’s fault that our state is flammable. We do the best that we can. My parents live in a rural, grassy area almost identical to the one the Camp Fire eviscerated in November. Every spring, they spend days mowing, weedwhacking, and chainsawing to clear grass, dry brush and dead trees from a 100-foot perimeter around the house, preparing for the day that a fire eventually comes for our land as well. My mother’s lungs are permanently scarred from inhaling the smoke that drifts over the mountains every summer and fall. Fire season, the time of year when the state is most vulnerable, is roughly 78 days longer nationwide than it was 40 years ago, according to the National Forest Service. The cause of this is climate change. Past forest management practices that prioritized immediate suppression of wildfires did upset some of the ecosystem’s natural balance to fire, but those policies were abandoned decades ago. As urban sprawl expands over the country, the National Forest Service points out, more and more people are building and developing in areas prone to fires, which further exacerbates the danger to human life.
The “forest management” lie has been a nice excuse for Republicans eager to roll back federal regulations on logging, which they say could help lessen the fuel load. Let us cut down more trees, they say, and fewer trees will burn. The Center for Biological Diversity notes that logging typically cuts down the largest and most fire-resistant trees, leaving smaller ones behind to burn.
California is a state beset on all sides. We build homes next to the ocean, where sea level rise could double the rate of coastal erosion that threatens hundreds of communities along the coast. We build homes away from the coast, like my parents’ in the foothills, where the arid summers make sure that everything under the sun can burn. In the Central Valley, where the state grows food for millions all over the world, billionaire agricultural corporations rule over entire towns of migrant workers while stealing water from smaller famers and the state alike to grow expensive nuts with good profit margins.
When all of this burns, the Forest Service spends so much money trying to put them out that it eats into their budget to do anything else. Teams of firefighters and underpaid inmates spend half the year rushing around the state trying to put out blazes that they will have to fight again and again, breathing the same smoke that millions of residents breathe every day, and will continue to breathe.
The fires in California have been out of the news for months. It’s winter now and raining today in Paradise, the town that burned. Fire season is over. When I went home for Christmas, the air was cool and clear. But it takes more than two months to rebuild a life, and there are undoubtedly hundreds of families still displaced from their homes. FEMA’s website still leads with a link to apply for disaster assistance for the California wildfires, but since the government shut down, its had a new banner: “Due to a lapse in federal funds, this website will not be actively maintained.”
If Donald Trump gets his way, FEMA will have money to maintain their website again, but none to spare for the people of California.
If you’ve been relying on FEMA grants to stay afloat after the fires, I’d love to hear your story. You can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.