Trump, California spar over money for wildfire relief funds

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — President Donald Trump threatened last Wednesday to withhold money to help California cope with wildfires, a day after new Governor 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 (FEMA) to stop giving the state money “unless they get their act together”.

Fire scientists said 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.

US President Donald Trump during his visit at a neighbourhood impacted by the wildfires in Paradise, California. – AP

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

Several Republican lawmakers who represent the town of Paradise, which was levelled by a fire in November that killed 86 people, said Trump’s tweet was not helpful.

“These are American citizens who need our help,” United States (US) Representative Doug LaMalfa said.

But Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, defended Trump’s comments on forest management and did not criticise 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 Governors 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 USD1 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 last Tuesday he will add an extra USD105 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 US Forest Service’s budget has steadily decreased since 2016. State and local governments own just three per cent 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 over USD48 million in individual and household assistance related to deadly wildfires in November, according to its website.

In last Tuesday’s 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 minimising its wildfire threat by “raking and cleaning” forests.

Finland’s President said he had talked to Trump about wildfires in November but did not recall discussing raking.

“I’ll defend him on that a little bit,” Newsom said on Tuesday. “I think what he was talking about is defensible spaces, landscaping, which has a role to play.”