President threatens to cut funding for California wildfires

President Trump on Wednesday seemed to threaten to cut the federal government’s funding for fighting wildfires in California. During a Cabinet meeting exchange with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, Mr. Trump said about the fires in California,  “…we’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money that we’re paying…”, which he said was “hundreds of billions of dollars”.

It is not clear exactly what funding would be cut. About 20 percent of the land in California is managed by the Forest Service, where many of the largest fires occur. It is hard to see how cutting the Forest Service budget would improve the situation. The state has responsibility for suppressing vegetation fires in many rural areas of California.

Any state can apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) which  may provide federal funding for up to 75 percent of eligible firefighting costs.  The grant is intended to assist in fighting fires that threaten to cause major disasters.  Eligible costs covered by FMAGs can include expenses for fire camps, equipment use, materials, supplies, mobilization, and demobilization activities attributed to fighting the fire.

Some of the California fires in 2018 for which FMAGs were approved included the Carr Fire near Redding, Pawnee Fire in Lake County, Cranston Fire in Riverside County, and the Mendocino Complex of Fires in Lake County near Clear Lake.

Also in 2018 FEMA declared the Carr Fire to be a “major disaster” which enabled grants to individuals for temporary housing, home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the fire. Major disasters are often declared for recovery from hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters.

Fact check

cost fires california
On average from 2003-2012, California wildfires had 44 percent of all reported suppression costs in the western 11 states (based on fiscal fire years, October 1 – September 30). Only 24 percent of acres burned were in California, on average, over the same time. Click image to enlarge. Credit: Climate Central.

Twice during the two-minute discussion about the cost of fires in California, Mr. Trump said fires in the state are costing the country “hundreds of billions of dollars”. Using data compiled by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, Climate Central created the graphs above. We extracted from the graphic the approximate yearly costs and found that the average annual costs of suppressing fires in California from 2003 through 2012 was approximately $300 million. Only one time during that 10-year span did suppression costs exceed $1 billion — in 2008 when about $1.1 billion was spent in the state. If that annual average suppression cost remained the same it would take 180 years to total $200 billion. Mr. Trump’s statement about the costs of suppressing fires in California is off by a factor of approximately 180.

These costs do not include other expenses that may be authorized by a major disaster declaration, like on the Carr Fire.

It is true that the cost per acre of wildfires in California is high. Some of the reasons include the high costs of firefighting resources in the state, and the proximity of values at risk such as homes and infrastructure.

Video and a transcript of the October 17 Cabinet meeting discussion about the cost of wildfires in California.


Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue:

“You talked about the forest fires. Now we are permitting and cleaning up these forests so we will reduce the threat of forest fires as well as creating jobs in these communities.”

President Trump:

“They ought to do that in California by the way.”

Secretary Perdue:

“Yes sir.”

President Trump:

“California’s a mess. We’re giving billions and billions of dollars for forest fires in California. There’s no reason for those fires to be like they are. They are leaving them dirty, it’s a disgraceful thing. Old trees are sitting there rotting and dry and instead of cleaning it up they don’t touch ’em. They leave ’em. And we end up with these massive fires that we’re paying hundreds of billions of dollars for — to — fix, and the destruction is incredible.

“So I think California oughta get their act together and clean up their forests and manage their forests because it’s disgraceful.

“What’s happening should never happen. I go all over the country. When I meet with governors the first thing they say is there’s no reason for forest fires like that in California.

“So I say to the Governor, or whoever is going to be the Governor of California, better get your act together cause California we’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money that we’re paying because of fires that should never be to the extent.

“They were telling me in a couple of states I won’t even mention their names, it’s like a flash, some grass will burn. It will be over in minutes. They’ll lose two acres, three acres at the most. They won’t even lose that. And here we are with thousands of acres and billions and billions of dollars every year. It’s the same thing every year.

“And they don’t want to clean up their forests because they have environmental problems in cleaning it up. It should be the opposite. Cause you’re going to lose your forest. You’re losing. But it’s costing our country hundreds of billions of dollars because of incompetence in California.

“The people, I’m speaking now for the people of California. They don’t want to see this happen. They’re getting destroyed. And it’s hurting our budgets, it’s hurting our country and they just better get their act together.”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

19 thoughts on “President threatens to cut funding for California wildfires”

    1. The figure “a billion dollars” is meaningless to me. It is beyond my ability to count in a lifetime. A hundred Million falls into the same category, as does “a hundred billion” or … a trillion dollars, a quadrillion dollars, or the grains of sand on a single beach. A million light years … what is that? The message is the same; “a lot of money” is being spent, and there has got to be a way we can do better. Somehow, somewhere, there exists some way we can do much better. So think about it, por favor.

  1. The irony is the State of California is stepping up to the plate and funding tens of millions of dollars in fuels treatment work on USFS and BLM lands through grants from CalFire and Sierra Nevada Conservancy. And don’t even get me started on the fact that California is one of the least federally dependent states in the county.

  2. What is generally not included is the salaries of
    Federal personnel assigned to the fires. That makes it so much more expensive.

    1. The salaries of the Fed workers are a drop in the bucket compared to the state and local govt agencies that work on the fires.

      1. But the cost of State and Local Govt has gone up because the Feds are using them 10 times more than they use to. How often do the Feds bring in out of state resources these days? Everyone wants to blame State and Local Govt for their high cost but the Feds sure do like to order them at the drop of a hat as they send Fed resources out of state. Bottom line is if you are going to complain about the cost don’t order them. Bring in out of region resources and contract equipment. The Feds need to quit blaming the State and Local Govt for their high cost when they are the very ones who can control it!

        1. Can’t bring in other FED resources when the western half of the country is on fire and in PL 5. It’s common to order agency first but it’s impossible to fill when there is heavy commitment of fed resources nation wide. That’s why you’ve seen the uptick in ordering local gov.

    2. The infrastructure to support the personnel fighting wildfires is much more expensive than the salaries of those spent to fight them.

    3. Kathy, the costs of federal personnel are a teensy fraction of the costs on wildfires, and it’s been the case for many years. Region 5 Fire did a study in 1999 of the costs of large fires — including two in particular that year — and broke down all the costs. Federal personnel pay was contrasted with what the fed agencies pay for state personnel, local and contract people.

  3. This is from 20 years ago, mind you, but I doubt the comparison has changed much.
    Excerpt:

    COST OF FEDERAL AND LOCAL/STATE FIRE RESOURCES
    September 1999
    The following is a comparison of the cost of local/state resources assigned to the Kirk Complex. As of September 29 there were 698 overhead personnel assigned to the Kirk Complex. Of that number, 335 were federal employees and 363 were state/local government employees.
    The following daily costs were calculated using an average hourly rate for each type of employee.

    Cost per hour $24 fed $42 state/local
    Cost per shift (14-hour shift) $360 fed (portal-to-portal) $1,006 state/local
    Daily basis fire total $120,600 fed $365,904 state/local
    21-day assignments $2,500,000 fed $7,500,000 state/local

    If the entire incident had been staffed with federal employees, the total cost for a 21-day assignment would have run $5.3 million — a savings of $4.9 million over what was actually spent — based on average costs from local/state agencies and including administrative surcharges.
    The complete study’s not on the USFS site anymore but it’s archived here:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20000815074639/http://www.fs.fed.us:80/r5/fire/1999/

  4. pres. trumph is right on…. The enviromental terrorist of the 1970s brought this fire destruction upon themselves. They rouined the timber industry in the nw and chose to let san francisco lawyers manage the timber industry rather than prof. foresters. As many loggers & foresters said to the so called tree huggers…..”hugg em good and then kiss them….. goodby because in about 30 years they are all going up in smoke”. spotted owels still taste like chicken….L.Lange

    1. We are so desperate to place blame and explain these wildfires in such a simplistic way. It’s never one factor….pre 1970s fire suppression, drought, and changes in tactics have all contributed as well. You can’t ‘clean up’ entire mountain ranges of fuel just like we can’t control changes in weather patterns. What if Californians simply didn’t develop the wild lands? The ‘destruction’ would be limited to fire-dependant forests burning like it always has. Fire was here and always will be.

  5. Here in southwest Montana, the summers have changed considerably since the late 1990s.

    Summers used to have thunderstorms. Temperatures in the low- to mid-80s.

    Lately, many summers here are in the mid- to high-90s and we have no precipitation for three or four months. How can forests survive high temperatures and no rain?

    Traditionally, hay producers used to put up hay after the Fourth of July. Now they put up the first cutting at least three weeks earlier. Cool crop grasses are ready to cut by the second week of June.

    I don’t hear the president or his minions, like Greg Gianforte and Steve Daines, Montana’s delegates to DC responding to this severe change in the climate. They just want to cut down all the trees “to reduce fireload.” Is there even a market these days for logs from our National Forests?

    We need educate ourselves about the ridge of high pressure which is parked over the western states for months at a time. It produces unbelievable heat and little moisture.

  6. Cutting funds will wake up California’s! Don’t get this backwards, the airplanes are very important, but Trump’s a number cruncher! For every 747 or DC10 load of fos- check that works wonders, it would cover 1000 man hrs of fire preventative maintenance in the spring & early summer, ahead of fire season!

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