With more than a dozen wildfires actively burning across California, the Trump Administration on Sunday charged that environmentalists are partially to blame.
“America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change,” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in an exclusive interview with KCRA. “Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat, and yet they are willing to burn it up.”
Zinke was in Northern California on Sunday to survey the damage from the deadly Carr Fire, which has destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
“Unfortunately, this trip is about fires,” said Zinke before heading to the fire zone. “I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth. This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.”
Zinke said that California’s forests are too dense and he wants to remove dead and dying trees before they become fuel for wildfires.
“Let’s not shut roads down so forest fighters don’t have access,” Zinke said. “Let’s make sure fire breaks are in place to protect our communities and to protect those areas that we all believe are special.”
Zinke’s comments on climate change produced some angry reactions from environmental groups.
“We need to deal with the reality that climate change is a big part of the problem,” said Paul Mason, vice president of Pacific Forest Trust.
Firefighters on the front lines have said they are experiencing fire behavior they have never seen before, including a fire whirl that leveled homes with winds of more than 140 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Kathryn Phillips of Sierra Club California is critical of Zinke’s comments about what’s causing California’s wildfires.
“I don’t think now is the time to scapegoat,” she said. “Particularly scapegoating with inaccurate statements.”
The Sierra Club pushed back against the Interior secretary’s comments, blaming the Trump Administration for poor forest management in California.
“About 40 percent of our wildlands are controlled by the federal government,” Phillips said. “But they haven’t put nearly enough, not nearly enough money into proper management of those wildlands.”
Are California’s fires also a fiscal issue?
KCRA asked Zinke about proposed budget cuts for the U.S. Forest Service and the impact it could have on fire management.
“When you’re spending $2.5 billion fighting forest fires, there’s not a lot left in the budget to do forest management,” Zinke said.
But Dan Jacobson of Environment California said he is skeptical of Zinke’s intentions.
“Business groups come in and say, ‘Oh we need to manage the forests,’” Jacobson said. “And that’s their code word for, ‘We need to cut everything down.’”
California’s dense timber forests are susceptible to wildfires, and Zinke said he believes environmentalists are only making it worse, especially in the Carr Fire.
“For instance, this fire, there’s an opportunity to replace a lot of homes with timber from salvage operations, but these environmentalists prevent us from even doing that,” Zinke said.
To Sierra Club California, Zinke’s comments are as inflammatory as the flames.
“They need to focus on finding solutions and stop trying to divide this country,” Phillips said.
Finding solutions will not be easy, especially when it comes to rebuilding homes in the fire zone. Some building experts said that costs will escalate because of the Trump tariffs on imported materials like lumber and nails.
“I would say it’s somewhere between $10,000 and as much as $20,000 per home,” said Mike Stretch, president of the North State Building Association.
In response, Zinke said: “And the irony is we have billions of board feet that is rotting on our forest floor, where we are importing lumber, and that lumber could be better utilized for people to build houses, lower the price and make it affordable for people to build a home.”