Update: Since this article originally published, some have suggested that Trump had in mind a more esoteric form of raking, such as perhaps an excavator rake; or a McLeod tool (a.k.a. a “fire rake”); or the 19th century European practice of removing organic topsoil known as “litter raking;" or — as a reader put it in a profanity-laced email to The Washington Post — “He didn’t mean literally raking with a rake, like some guy with a little rake from Home Depot, it’s a term meaning to clear underbrush and rotted forest floors with control burns which California does not do.”
The White House has not responded to a request for clarification on what Trump meant by “raking," so the above possibilities cannot be totally discounted.
However, it’s worth pointing out that when the president spoke of watching firemen rake beneath a little nut tree, he moved his hands back and forth as if he were miming a garden rake.
Reversing course on his threat to cut the state’s federal funding if Californians don’t solve their forest fire problem, President Trump now says he’ll solve it with them.
“We go through this every year; we can’t go through this,” Trump said Saturday as he toured the state’s massive wildfire zones. “We’re going to have safe forests.”
How to make California’s vast drought-stricken forests “safe” after the Camp Fire grew to the size of Chicago this month, killing dozens if not hundreds of people and burning an entire town to the ground? Trump promised federal funds and says he has some ideas.
One of those ideas is raking.
It’s not a popular idea.
“You’ve got to take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forests, it’s very important,” Trump told reporters as he posed with California officials in the charred ruins of Paradise — his first stop on the tour.
Trump went on to explain that the president of Finland, whom he met on an overseas trip a week earlier, told him about raking the forest floors. “He called it a forest nation,” Trump said, “and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem."
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto later disputed this. He told a local newspaper that he had briefed Trump on Finland’s efforts to surveil and care for its forests, the Associated Press wrote, “but said he can’t recall anything being mentioned on raking.”
Maybe it wasn’t Niinisto who gave Trump the raking idea. Maybe it was something he saw on TV.
“I was watching the firemen the other day, and they were raking areas. They were raking areas!” Trump told Fox News from the Oval Office on Friday — before he left for California. “They’re raking trees, little trees like this — nut trees, little bushes, that you could see are totally dry. Weeds! And they’re raking them. They’re on fire.”
“That should have been all raked out,” he concluded. “You wouldn’t have the fires.”
The Fox host, Chris Wallace, asked whether climate change might not be a larger wildfire factor than unraked debris, but Trump didn’t think so.
Wherever Trump got the notion that raking parts of California — be it entire forest floors or the areas around little nut trees — could have prevented the Camp Fire, not many people seem to agree.
The online reaction in Finland alternated between those pointing out that the country has a vastly different climate and population density and those making jokes.
The idea’s domestic reception wasn’t much better.
“If preventing wildfires were as easy as raking leaves, we would have done that by now, but it is a very complicated issue.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told MSNBC on Sunday, mentioning climate change, dry weather and high winds. “I hope the president consults some experts, maybe talks to folks who actually know something about wildfires, and really stop believing these bizarre theories that he has.”
This is not to say that raking has nothing to do with fire prevention — even if it’s not the exotic and comprehensive solution Trump made it sound like.
“His general sentiment is correct — that we need to manage fuels,” said Yana Valachovic a forest adviser with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension program. “And yeah, managing that pine litter adjacent to our homes and buildings is super important. … But the reality is, to manage every little bit of fuel with a rake is not practical.”
Raking is an effective way to clear light debris like leaves and pine needles away from residences, she said. It’s of much less use on the forest floor, where infernos burn through swaths of brush and large debris that only heavy machinery can clear.
California’s problems are complicated, she said — a combination of hot, dry climates, poor community design and “100 years of fire suppression” that helped turn forests into tinder boxes.
Like Trump, Valachovic said the problem is solvable — but through long-term programs of community education, controlled burns, forest thinning and economic incentives.
Much more than rakes, in other words.
Visual story: How the Camp Fire overwhelmed Paradise