Trump, California Spar Over Money for Wildfire Relief Funds

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -
President Donald Trump talks with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, left, as California Gov. Jerry Brown listens during a visit to a neighborhood impacted by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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 that 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 in forests.

FEMA could not immediately comment because of the government shutdown. Trump has previously threatened to withhold wildfire payments but never followed through.

Newsom, a Democrat who took office Monday, said Californians affected by wildfires “should not be victims to partisan bickering.”

Trump’s tweet came a day after Newsom and Govs. Jay Inslee and Kate Brown of Washington and Oregon, respectively, sent a letter to the president asking him to double federal funding for forest management.

Newsom noted that 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 new firefighting equipment, better emergency communications and other improvements.

More than half of California’s 33 million acres of forest are managed by the federal government, and the letter noted that 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.

In November, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century leveled the California town of Paradise, killing 86 people and destroying about 14,000 homes.

Trump toured the fire devastation with Newsom, who defended a head-scratching comment by Trump 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 at the time. “I think what he was talking about is defensible spaces, landscaping, which has a role to play.”