The Time Trump Confused Finns About Forest Fires

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and his four years in office contained so much daily weirdness, wackiness, and horror that the human brain couldn’t comprehend it all. As Trump gets close to the White House again, “That Happened brings you the surreal moments you might have forgotten — or blocked from your memory.

Donald Trump is a city guy at heart. He’s at home amid towering skyscrapers, Bonfire of the Vanities–style characters, and murders he can pin on the wrong people. But rest assured, the ex-president’s expertise extends well beyond urban quandaries like how to stiff casino contractors. He’s also a self-proclaimed expert on preventing forest fires.

California learned this the hard way. During Trump’s presidency, the state experienced the largest blazes in its history and some of the deadliest, including 2018’s hugely destructive Camp Fire, which killed 85 people. But California was poorly positioned for presidential sympathy, having committed the sin of voting for Hillary Clinton by 30 points in 2016. So rather than empathize with the state and its residents like a normal president, Trump blamed the victim. Specifically, he landed on a typically peculiar line of argument: that California wasn’t raking its forest floors thoroughly enough.

Where Trump came up with this idea isn’t clear, but he became fixated on it over the years, repeatedly invoking it as the source of California’s fire problems — and as justification for threatening to withhold aid that he then grudgingly approved.

“I see again the forest fires are starting,” he said at a 2020 rally. “They’re starting again in California. I said, ‘You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests’ — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees, and they’re like, like, so flammable you touch them and it goes up.”

By then, this routine routine was predictable, as Politico noted:

The combination of assigning blame while fires still burn and offering questionable remedies have become as familiar to Californians as the conflagrations that ignite each year. Those fires have spurred a predictable response from the president: blame the Democrat-dominated state and then threaten to punish it by withholding money. He did so as fires burned in 2018, and again in 2019.

Trump’s raking claims were, unsurprisingly, shaky on the evidence. While it is true that there’s some debate about how best to manage potentially combustible forests, Trump, as is his wont, ignored a few key facts. Among them: Much of the land that burned in California was either federally or privately owned, meaning the state couldn’t have just stepped in. And much of it wasn’t forest at all, but “grasslands and oak-studded hillsides,” as the San Francisco Chronicle put it. The state’s power companies played a key role in at least some recent catastrophic fires. Perhaps most important, Trump refused to acknowledge the role of climate change, which is almost certainly supercharging wildfires across the country. “It’ll start getting cooler,” he once told California’s secretary for natural resources. “You just watch.”

The one piece of hard evidence Trump marshaled for his raking advice? The fact that Finland did things this way. Supposedly. As Trump put it eloquently in 2018 during a fire-related visit to California:

“I was with the president of Finland and he said: ‘We have, much different, we are a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation. And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.”

There were just a couple of problems with Trump’s assertion: That’s not how Finns manage forest fires, and that’s also (probably) not how Trump’s conversation with the country’s president went down.

As Finnish social-media users were more than happy to point out (between memes mocking Trump), their country has the benefit of being rainy, empty, and cold:

Finland’s then-president, Sauli Niinistö, was a bit more diplomatic in the style of someone who knows the American president is a blockhead but can’t say it out loud. As the Guardian reported, Niinistö “appears to recall the conversation somewhat differently”:

In an interview reported by Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, Niinisto said he met Trump briefly in Paris earlier in November, and on the topic of the California wildfires told him: “Finland is a country covered by forests,” and that to avoid forest fires “we have a good surveillance system and network.”

Beyond the factual inaccuracies, it’s odd that Trump would look admiringly at a country that would almost certainly reject him at the polls if it could, or even more emphatically than California did. But it does have one thing going for it that Trump loves.

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