Matt Niswonger

Haters back off: Stop treating California like a social outcast

By Matt Niswonger

When it comes to natural disasters, states like Florida get sympathy while California gets a guilt trip. Photo: iStock/JPhilipson.

As the first rains finally arrived on Thanksgiving weekend it appeared our hellish fire season was finally over. While the fire danger subsided many Californians still smoldered with anger in the wake of comments made by President Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke after both men toured the devastation.

As a state we are still coming to grips with the scale of this tragedy, but President Trump considers himself highly educated on the subject and provided some “helpful” tips. There’s no predicting the pithy words that come out of his mouth on a regular basis, so when he toured the devastation in mid November and gave a speech, I paid close attention. Here is what I understood:

California had a terrible fire season, but we all need to calm down and look to Finland. You see, Finland is a forest nation and they protect their forests with an extensive raking policy. That’s right, all that dead wood lying around on the forest floor gets raked up, leaving the forests all tidy and fireproof.

When people pointed out on social media that the climate of Finland is much colder than the climate of California (almost a third of Finland lies above the Arctic Circle) our president did not comment.

When others pointed out that managing deadfall in a forest with large trees using a simple garden rake is completely absurd, the president had already moved on to other subjects.

Secretary Zinke had some different ideas. He said he prefers not to point fingers but “radical environmentalists” are to blame for California’s fire problems because they have stopped the state from managing our forests properly.

When people pointed out on social media that the federal government manages the vast majority of California’s forests (over half of California’s land is owned and managed by the feds) and the Trump administration is DECREASING the 2019 state budget for National Forest management, Secretary Zinke did not respond.

When others pointed out that both the Camp and Woolsey fires were spread by extremely dry grasslands and chaparral in windy conditions (not timber forests), our esteemed Secretary of the Interior did not respond.

I have a friend from high school who lost his home in the Camp Fire. The recent visits by both Trump and Zinke were not even a blip on his radar, judging by his Facebook posts. That’s a good thing. He is too busy dealing with finding housing for his family, getting to work every day so he can keep earning money, and handling all the daily complications that come with a major catastrophe.

For the rest of us, we can only sit back and marvel at the clueless comments made by both Trump and Zinke. Clearly we are on our own: there will be no effective national leadership to help us with this or any future tragedies associated with our multi-year drought that has been made worse by climate change.

Maybe I should stop criticizing and just appreciate the federal disaster relief funds and FEMA money we receive from Trump to help our fire victims. After all, in a tweet on November tenth he threatened to cut off those disaster relief funds if we don’t start managing our forests better.

This is just more infuriating nonsense given that we are the sixth largest economy in the world and we add much more to the federal coffers in personal and corporate income tax then we receive through federal programs like FEMA.

Am I missing something here? Should we as Californians feel guilty about the federal dollars we receive after wildfires? Again we give much more to the federal coffers than we take, so why are we being treated like social outcasts who are a big burden on the rest of the country?

Please send me an email if you can shed some light on this. Do you agree (in whole or in part) with Trump’s and Zinke’s comments that California is its own worst enemy and we should blame ourselves for these fires? Or maybe you agree with me that they should keep their mouths shut and send us federal disaster aid without making us feel guilty or forcing us to endure their cringe-worthy photo-ops. You can email your thoughts to As always we will try to print as many letters from readers as space allows.

As I write this, the death toll grows and the massive scale of this tragedy unfolds. We eagerly await the rain and snow in the forecast, but until then all California can do is sit and smolder.

Send me an email, I’d love to hear from you.

—Matt Niswonger

Learn how Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is helping those impacted by the Camp Fire, and how you can help, here: