Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses criticism of his travel practices before delivering a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance." at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C. 
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Zinke foolishly blames California fires on ‘radical environmentalists’

Donald Trump traveled to California over the weekend to survey deadly fire damage, and the president told reporters, “We will be working also with environmental groups.” Apparently, before that work gets underway, Trump’s Interior secretary wants to blame some environmentalists for the fires themselves. The L.A. Times  reported:

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed the state’s fires on “radical environmentalists” who he said have prevented forest management. […]

In an interview with Breitbart News, Zinke said he agrees with Trump’s comments about the fires being a result of poor forest management, and repeatedly said radical environmentalists were responsible for the destruction caused by the fires.

“It’s not time for finger-pointing,” Zinke told the far-right website. “We know the problem. It’s been years of neglect, and in many cases it’s been these radical environmentalists that want nature to take its course…. You know what? This is on them.”

As serious an issue as this is, it’s always amusing when people preface their remarks by saying, “It’s not time for finger-pointing,” which is immediately followed by finger-pointing.

For the scandal-plagued Interior secretary, however, it was a familiar posture. In August, for example, Zinke wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he twice lashed out at “radical environmentalists,” complaining they “would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods.”

Soon after, the Republican cabinet secretary insisted that climate change has “nothing to do” with California fires, adding, “America is better than letting these radical groups control the dialogue about climate change. Extreme environmentalists have shut down public access. They talk about habitat and yet they are willing to burn it up.”

Putting aside Zinke’s preoccupation with blaming environmentalists for fires, and delaying questions about the propriety of an Interior secretary playing a misguided blame game in the midst of an ongoing and deadly disaster, let’s not overlook the fact that the evidence suggests Zinke is simply wrong. The L.A. Times’ report added:

Experts agree that overgrown forests in California pose a heightened wildfire threat in some parts of the Sierra Nevada. But although Paradise is near forestland, the wind-whipped Camp fire tore across areas that burned in lightning fires in 2008 and were later logged. It was not fueled by heavy timber.

“It started out as a vegetation fire. When it reached the incorporated area, which is definitely a lot more urban and developed of an area,” Jonathan Pangburn, a fire behavior analyst for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in an interview last week, “it turned into a building-to-building fire … no longer carrying through most of the vegetation, especially in the upper canopies in the trees. It was not a crown fire through the Paradise area.”

The New York Times had a related report last week on the causes of the fire. “Radical environmentalists” are not among the culprits.