Trump, California spar over money for wildfire relief funds

President Donald Trump threatened Wednesday to withhold money to help California cope with wildfires, a day after new Gov. Gavin Newsom asked him to double the federal investment in forest management. Trump again suggested poor forest management is to blame for California’s deadly wildfires and said he’s ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop giving the state money “unless they get their act together.”

Fire scientists say climate change, not poor forest management, is the driving contributor to California’s increasingly destructive wildfires, many of which have not been primarily in forests. FEMA could not immediately comment because of the government shutdown. Trump has previously threatened to withhold wildfire payments but never followed through. Hours after Trump’s tweet, the state’s emergency operations agency said FEMA is extending its deadline for victims of deadly November wildfires to seek assistance. Newsom, a Democrat who took office Monday, said Californians affected by wildfires “should not be victims to partisan bickering.”

Several Republican lawmakers who represent the town of Paradise, which was leveled by a fire in November that killed 86 people, said Trump’s tweet was not helpful. “These are American citizens who need our help,” U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa said. But Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, defended Trump’s comments on forest management and did not criticize his threat to withhold funding. McCarthy said he’ll propose more money for forest management as part of Democratic spending bills this week to reopen the government. But Republicans ultimately don’t plan to back the spending bills.

Newsom and Govs. Jay Inslee and Kate Brown of Washington and Oregon, respectively, on Tuesday sent a letter to the president asking him to double federal funding for forest management. California has pledged $1 billion over the next five years to ramp up its efforts, which include clearing dead trees that can serve as fuel. Lawmakers approved that money last year, and Newsom said Tuesday he’ll add an extra $105 million in his upcoming budget for wildfire-related spending. More than half of California’s 33 million acres of forest are managed by the federal government, and the letter noted the U.S. Forest Service’s budget has steadily decreased since 2016. State and local governments own just 3 percent of forests and the rest is owned by private owners and Native American tribes, according to the University of California. “Our significant state-level efforts will not be as effective without a similar commitment to increased wildland management by you, our federal partners,” the letter read.

Newsom’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about how much money the state has received from FEMA following recent wildfires. Most FEMA money goes directly to victims through disaster assistance. The agency approved more than $48 million in individual and household assistance related to deadly wildfires in November, according to its website. In a Tuesday event on wildfire safety, Newsom had praised Trump for always providing California with necessary disaster relief funds. Newsom and Trump toured the fire devastation in Paradise together in November. At the time, Trump made a head-scratching comment about Finland minimizing its wildfire threat by “raking and cleaning” forests.

Finland’s president said he had talked to Trump about wildfires in November but didn’t recall discussing raking. “I’ll defend him on that a little bit,” Newsom said Tuesday. “I think what he was talking about is defensible spaces, landscaping, which has a role to play.”Q

By KATHLEEN RONAYNE, Associated Press

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