Data in the News: California’s Wildfires

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Natural disasters in California have dominated the headlines for the past year. In January, mudslides tore through Southern California caused by an earlier forest fire that left the hillsides in Montecito vulnerable to landslides. In November 2018 a wildfire in Northern California’s little town of Paradise killed at least 88 people and burned more than 150,000 acres, according to CBS news. Meanwhile, the Woolsey fire in Southern California’s Ventura County took the lives three people (and forced the evacuation of SAGE’s head office in Thousand Oaks).

In the face of such deadly and prolonged natural disasters, many people are asking what the government is doing to prevent wildfires. President Trump has blamed the fires on poor forest management, stating that if California followed the example of Finland, where foresters “spend a lot of time raking and cleaning” the forest floors, the fire would have been less severe.

President Trump’s response to the Californian wildfires has resulted in skepticism, but begs the question what is FEMA doing to stop these fires? The Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for providing assistance after natural disasters and investing in infrastructure to ensure the prevention of natural disasters. FEMA’s responsibilities are best summarized by its mission station: “Helping people before, during, and after disasters.” The last time that FEMA gave serious assistance to California was in 2008. From 2009 to 2016 (the last year that data is available) FEMA has granted less than a million dollars for fire disasters to the state of California.



FEMA public assistance grant dollars for fires (county). (20181203). SAGE stats (Web site). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from:

In a press release, FEMA announced that it would be assisting state and local officials responding to the Hill and Woolsey wildfires and that “FEMA is bringing federal resources to bear to assist the state of California”. The Hill fire is now 70 percent contained and the Woolsey fire 94 percent contained but many, much like President Trump, will be wondering what can be done to stop future wildfires.

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