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Trump threatens to cut off federal funding for California wildfire relief

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatens to cut off federal emergency aid to California for wildfires.
  • "Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money," Trump tweets.
  • Trump's threat leads to a swift response from California's new Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who tweets that "disasters and recovery are no time for politics."
US President Donald Trump (C) looks on with Governor of California Jerry Brown (R) and Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, as they view damage from wildfires in Paradise, California on November 17, 2018.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to cut off federal relief aid to California for wildfires, prompting a swift response from new Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom that "disasters and recovery are no time for politics."

"Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen," Trump tweeted. "Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!"

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been helping on the ground in California after wildfires in November collectively damaged or destroyed more than 20,000 structures and killed at least 89 people. The largest blaze was the devastating Camp Fire that destroyed most of the Northern California town of Paradise, killing at least 86 people in the nation's deadliest wildfire in at least a century. FEMA also has been providing help in response to the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California.

CNBC reached out to FEMA and the White House for comment.

"Disasters and recovery are no time for politics," Newsom fired back in a tweet. "I'm already taking action to modernize and manage our forests and emergency responses. The people of CA – folks in Paradise – should not be victims to partisan bickering."

Playing out in the background, however, are rising tensions between the Republican president and Democrats as the partial U.S. government shutdown Wednesday entered its 19th day due to a stalemate over funding Trump's proposed border wall. Newsom has been critical of the wall and Trump's policies on immigration, as well as a wide range of other issues.

Trump's threat to pull FEMA funding follows Newsom's criticism of the Trump administration Monday during his inaugural address. Newsom called the administration "hostile to California's values and interests" and also took a swipe at what he called "the corruption and incompetence in the White House."

The threat to halt disaster funds also could be a setback for recovery efforts in Paradise, a community in Butte County, where Trump edged Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by more than 3 percentage points in 2016.

The president has been critical of California's wildfire prevention efforts previously and threatened to pull federal funds in October and then again in November as firefighters were still battling major blazes across the state. For example, in November he went on social media to blame "gross mismanagement of the forests" for the state's wildfires and added, "Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"

Then, a week after his tweet about "gross mismanagement," the president flew to California to see the devastation in Paradise with then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Newsom and suggested the "forest nation" Finland did a better job preventing wildfires by devoting "a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem."

In addition, back in August as the massive Mendocino Complex wildfires in Northern California were raging, the president claimed the state's wildfires were "being magnified & made so much worse" due to what he called California's "bad environmental laws."

California fire officials have said the increasing severity of wildfires in the state is due to climate change, not forest management practices.

"The president's attempt to pin sole blame for California's wildfire problems on the state's forest management is flat wrong," said Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters — a union representing about 30,000 local, state and federal firefighters.

He called Trump's threat to pull FEMA aid "deplorable" and said those still rebuilding their lives in Paradise now "find themselves being used as pawns in the president's ill-informed chest-pounding at their expense." Rice also ripped the president for "a self-imposed [government] shutdown" and said Trump "has little standing to lecture anyone else about dysfunction."

Rice pointed out the lion's share of forest land in California is controlled by the federal government and added that "many catastrophic fires in California occur in the wildland-urban interface, fueled by unprecedented weather conditions, drought and development patterns."

According to the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, about one-third of the state is forested land, and nearly 60 percent is owned by the federal government. Only 3 percent is owned by state or local governments. The remaining forested land is owned by private entities, including timber companies.

On Tuesday, Newsom announced plans to expand the state's emergency preparedness for wildfires, including a five-year, $1 billion forest management plan in his next budget. He also wants the state to spend about $300 million for new helicopters and planes to combat fires as well as to update its communications equipment and install more fire-spotting cameras.

Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses emergency preparedness during a visit to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection CalFire Colfax Station Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Colfax, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli | AP

"We are stepping up our game," Newsom said during a news conference with emergency officials. "The last two years have been devastating."

The new governor said more than 33,000 structures in California have been destroyed due to fires in the past two years. Fires and floods have claimed 167 lives during that period, too, Newsom said.

In announcing the plans, the governor's office said the state has already invested more than $111 million in forest health since 2017. The office also said the U.S. Forest Service has had its budget slashed "by more than $2 billion since 2016, reducing the agency's capacity to manage federal forestland in California."

CNBC reached out to the U.S. Forest Service for comment but received an automated reply about the lapse in government funding limiting staff availability.