Editorial: Help for California wildfire victims was held up by Trump’s petty politics


The federal government’s withholding of emergency wildfire assistance to California this week captured President Trump’s capacity to subject even the gravest matters to petty politics and personal resentments.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials on Wednesday rejected Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for a major presidential disaster declaration and aid. Newsom sought the help for six fires that started in early September and affected counties across the state from Sikiyou to San Diego, including the largest single fire in the state’s recorded history, the Creek Fire in the mountains of Fresno and Madera counties.

Newsom’s petition, which followed a successful emergency declaration request for the lightning-sparked Bay Area fires the month before, noted that the September blazes had burned nearly 2 million acres, destroyed over 3,000 structures, caused more than $300 million in damage and killed at least three. But a FEMA official said they were “not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant a disaster declaration. A White House spokesman gave the denial Trump’s stamp of disapproval, saying “the president concurred.”

On Friday, however, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents fire-ravaged areas, announced that Trump would reverse the decision. Newsom subsequently confirmed the about-face, which was welcome but should not have been necessary.

Driven by warming temperatures, sprawling development and decades of fire suppression, wildfires have ended and disrupted lives and destroyed homes and businesses across California and the West in recent years. They raise plenty of difficult questions, but whether they constitute a national emergency is not one of them.

Trump has nevertheless repeatedly threatened to deny California federal aid on a variety of fictitious pretexts, among them that the state doesn’t have enough water to fight fires because it “diverts” too much into the ocean. The president is also fond of excoriating state officials for forest mismanagement (which he often mischaracterizes as insufficient cleaning or raking of the wilderness) even though the U.S. Forest Service owns more than half the state’s woodlands. And, of course, he persists in denying the relevance of climate change, having recently promised state officials that global temperatures would spontaneously cool.

A more likely rationale for the president’s reluctance to meet this basic responsibility was provided by Miles Taylor, a former top Trump Homeland Security aide who endorsed Joe Biden in August. Taylor said Trump “told us to stop giving money to people whose houses had burned down from a wildfire because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him.”

Friday’s intercession by Republican lawmakers was a reminder that beyond being appalling, this is false: Trump actually has enough supporters in California to have carried 25 of its 58 counties in 2016. Once again, the president was wrong — factually and, more to the point, morally.

This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.





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