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Trump draws ire from firefighters, celebrities for tweet about California fires

"The firefighters and the communities in this state deserve an apology," said the leader of the California firefighters' union.
Image: A man watches as the Woolsey Fire reaches the ocean along Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) near Malibu, California, Nov. 9, 2018
A man watches as the Woolsey Fire reaches the ocean along Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu, California, Nov. 9, 2018. Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

The leader of the union that represents a majority of California's firefighters said Saturday that President Donald Trump should apologize for blaming the state's deadly wildfires on "poor" forest management.

The Camp Fire in northern California reduced the town of Paradise to rubble and claimed the lives of 23 people, Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said. In addition, two bodies were found Friday in the Malibu area, within the 75,000-acre Woolsey Fire zone, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted early Saturday.

He threatened to cut off federal funding for forest management, although it wasn't clear if he was speaking of the U.S. Forest Service or state agencies.

"The firefighters and the communities in this state deserve an apology," said Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters union.

Trump's criticism prompted a response from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who tweeted, "The reason these wildfires have worsened is because of climate change and a historic drought."

Actor Patricia Arquette tweeted, "Maybe Trump would like to see what would happen if California threatened to withhold our federal taxes."

Joe Piechowski evacuated Thursday night after the Woolsey Fire approached his home in Simi Valley. The lifelong Republican voter appeared upset as he spoke about Trump's tweet from his temporary home at an evacuation center in Thousand Oaks.

"This has nothing to do with forest mismanagement," he said. "There is no forest on fire here in Southern California."

The Pasadena Firefighters Association declared the president "wrong."

"The fires in So. Cal are urban interface fires and have NOTHING to do with forest management," the association tweeted.

Rice agreed. "Malibu is not a logged area," he said. "It’s rolling hills and chaparral."

What's more, he said, most of the state's forests are managed by the federal government.

"The president of the United States is ignorant of the process of forest management and wildfires," he said.

J. Keith Gilless, chair of the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and a professor of forest economics at the University of California, Berkeley, said Trump "is at best uninformed" on the topic.

"California has always been a leader with respect to sound, science-based forest management practices on private land," he said in an email. "Unfortunately, these practices don't have much influence on wind speed, temperature, relative humidity, or drought cycles, even if they may help us to address the long-term threat of climate change."

The president has proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for two consecutive years, including a 15 percent reduction in funding for 2019. The department oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

The state of California keeps a rainy day fund for disasters such as flooding, earthquakes and fires.

"They plan for it very well," Rice said, singling out California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) for being on top of the state's wildfires.

A Cal Fire spokesman declined to comment, referring questions to the governor's office.

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom tweeted, "Lives have been lost. Entire towns have been burned to the ground. Cars abandoned on the side of the road. People are being forced to flee their homes. This is not a time for partisanship. This is a time for coordinating relief and response and lifting those in need up."

Newsom announced on Friday that Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had granted a request for a Presidential Emergency Declaration and federal funds to help battle the Camp and Woolsey fires.

In Butte County, where the Camp Fire has charred 105,000 acres, Rice said he watched Saturday as a firefighter gave an evacuee his own extra pants and shirt to wear.

"This entire community is wiped out," he said. "You would think the president of the United States could get a little close to that."

Maybe Trump heard him. Later in the day, Trump tweeted, "Our hearts are with those fighting the fires, the 52,000 who have evacuated, and the families of the 11 who have died. The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all."

Early on Sunday, however, the president seemed to return to his earlier theme. "With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California," he tweeted. "Get Smart!"