By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday rekindled his criticism of California’s wildfire prevention steps and threatened to withhold billions of dollars of federal funding amid one of the most destructive fire seasons on record.
“It’s hurting our budget, it’s hurting our country and they better get their act together,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting about California’s forestry management. He did not specify the type of funding that could be withheld.
The Republican president’s comments, which followed his criticism in August of California’s wildfire prevention efforts, were aimed at Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, whom he has frequently criticized over immigration and other policies.
With wildfires having charred nearly 2.8 million acres (1.1 million hectares) over the past two years in California, Trump said the state should do more to remove rotten trees and other debris that fuel fires.
Brown’s press secretary, Evan Westrup, cited several fire prevention steps the governor had taken, including last month’s law requiring utilities to have fire prevention plans, and an order doubling to 500,000 acres (202,340 hectares) the land open to vegetation thinning.
“The president’s comments are about as credible as his self-proclaimed ‘natural instinct for science,'” Westrup said in an email, referring to Trump’s self-assessment in an Associated Press interview this week.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, noted that in the past two years of intense wildfires, the amount of federally managed forest land in California burned exceeded the amount of charred state forest land by 1.49 million acres (603,000 hectares) to 1.13 million acres (457,000 hectares),
A six-year drought is mainly blamed for killing an estimated 129 million trees in state forests and CalFire has crews of 60 workers clearing debris every day, spokesman Scott McLean said by telephone.
This week, California’s largest public utility cut off power to about 60,000 customers for up to two days in a fire prevention move when high winds threatened to topple trees and power lines.
In August, Trump tweeted that unspecified water diversions to the Pacific Ocean were making California wildfires harder to fight.
California had plenty of water to fight the blazes and the fires are primarily fought by crews hacking away at dry brush with hand tools and bulldozers, not with water, McLean said at the time.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)