Zinke Circles Back to Familiar Scapegoat for California Fires

Cost of combating blazes will be ‘well into the billions,’ Interior secretary says

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, right, seen here in Paradise, Calif., earlier this month with California Gov. Jerry Brown and FEMA Administrator Brock Long, center, is blaming the Golden State’s devastating forest fires on environmental groups. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, right, seen here in Paradise, Calif., earlier this month with California Gov. Jerry Brown and FEMA Administrator Brock Long, center, is blaming the Golden State’s devastating forest fires on environmental groups. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Posted November 20, 2018 at 1:24pm

As the dead and damage continue to be tabulated from California’s Camp Fire, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday continued the administration drumbeat that environmental groups are to blame for the devastation, saying they have prevented officials from forestry practices that reduce the risk of deadly blazes.

Forest experts, scientists and resource managers say a combination of factors, including drought exacerbated by climate change and urban and rural development patterns, have helped lead to the current situation. But Zinke on several occasions during fire season has put the blame squarely on environmental groups that are frequently at odds with Republican politicians. 

“We’re not talking about clear-cutting, we’re looking at thinning,” Zinke told reporters Tuesday.

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He cast blame on “lawsuit after lawsuit” by what he dubbed “radical environmental groups”that have prevented state and federal officials from managing dead trees and others that enhance fire risks.

“So, yes, I do lay at the feet,” he said of blame for those groups for the California fires that have left nearly 80 dead and almost 1,000 unaccounted for. 

On Sunday, Zinke had a similar message in an interview with Breitbart News.

“I will lay this on the foot of the environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years, and you know what, this is on them,” Zinke told the conservative news outlet.

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“This has been years of ‘letting nature take its course,’” Zinke said Tuesday before ticking off a list of “best sciences and best practices” that he said would help prevent these kinds of lethal blazes.

That brought to mind President Donald Trump’s recent comments while in California that the state might want to emulate Finland, which he claimed spends a lot of time “raking” its forests and reducing fire risks.

On the same call, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, whose department has responsibility for the U.S. Forest Service, said federal agencies were given some help by Congress in the last government-wide spending bill to devote more funding more quickly to battle forest fires.

The bill from the fires will be “well into the billions,” Zinke predicted.

The two secretaries said they might need to “replenish” existing fire-fighting accounts, but their departments have not yet calculated or submitted any potential requests for more dollars.