The West

What prompted Trump’s trip to California wildfire sites

President Donald Trump will talk about the need for increased forest management during his trip to Northern California wildfire sites on Saturday, an issue that got him widely criticized just last week.

California Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville, who represents a district that has been devastated by the destructive Camp Fire, said Friday that he extended the invitation to Trump earlier this week. He thinks Trump will highlight the need for better fuel management on federal lands during the trip.

The fire has killed at least 63 people and left 631 still missing. It is 41 percent contained. So far, the blaze has burned 142,000 acres, more than 52,000 people have been evacuated and 12,256 structures have been destroyed, 9,700 of them homes.

In an interview with Chris Wallace that will air on Fox News Sunday, Trump said the purpose of his trip was to see the firefighters and also to call for more forest management. He cited a past conversation he said he had with a state’s governor he declined to name.

“The big problem we have is management,” Trump said. “When I was in a certain state, I won’t say which, the governor said, ‘You know, we’ve tested it. We clean out areas and we actually set the fire just to see, we lose almost nothing, we can put it out right away. And then we leave areas unmaintained, he said, ‘We’ll lose 100,000 acres before you even know it.’”

Trump criticized California over the fuel management issue in recent tweets that angered state officials and first responders, saying, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” He threatened to cut off federal funding for forest management.

Congressional Republicans have called for easing the bureaucratic process involved in thinning forests in California, which Democrats and environmental groups have resisted. And while federal agencies work to clear dead trees and other possible kindling for wildfires, the amount of federal land in California makes the job difficult to do effectively.

LaMalfa said he has had repeated conversations with Trump about a visit to the area, and while logistics are still being planned, LaMalfa said he believes the priority is recognizing the work of first responders, confronting the humanitarian problem and highlighting issues with fuel management.

“This situation is one that has developed that has opened that window to not only console and bring aid and send aid, but that we need to do things better with our fuel management all across the West,” LaMalfa said. “These fires are underlying the need that we need to do more — much more.”

Trump’s administration proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to tree clearing and other forest management work earlier this year.

Maria Shriver, former first lady of California, expressed concern that Trump would make similar comments on the visit, tweeting Thursday that she hopes Trump doesn’t “try to lecture or shame us.”

“Instead, I hope (Trump) shows gratitude to our firefighters, first responders and all those stepping up to help their fellow Californians,” she said. “Tell us the money we need to rebuild is on the way. If not, don’t come.”

LaMalfa said that, setting aside the president’s tweets, Trump genuinely cares for those who have been hurt in the fire and is coming to show those people the federal government is ready to help.

“That’s why he sent FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) within 28 hours when the major disaster declaration was asked for,” LaMalfa said.

He said while it’s kind of Walmart and other businesses to allow people to use their property to camp out temporarily, everyone knows FEMA has a lot of work in front of them to provide appropriate short- and long-term housing for those displaced by the fires. Trump is on the same page, according to LaMalfa.

“Let’s get people new housing that’s appropriate, and not tents in the Walmart parking lot,” he said. “It’s a monumental amount of work that needs to be done.”

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.