CHICO, CALIFORNIA (WASHINGTON POST) – President Donald Trump toured a scene of surreal devastation on Saturday (Nov 17), picking his way around burned trees and the hulking skeletons of vehicles as he pledged federal resources to help Californians recover from the most deadly and destructive wildfire in state history.
“This is very sad to see, but we’re all going to work together,” Mr Trump said after a walking tour of a burned-out RV park and housing tract in Paradise.
As he spoke, a thick haze of smoke hung in the air. Stone and brick chimneys – all that remained of some homes – were visible from Mr Trump’s motorcade.
The president also criticised forest-management decisions that he suggested are at least partly to blame for the disaster, even though the fires are considered to be more related to a record drought, high winds and a changing climate.
But unlike earlier comments in which he threatened to withhold federal funding if changes were not made, Mr Trump provided a reassuring note.
“You’ve got the federal government”, at the ready, he promised.
Referring to the staggering loss of life – more than 70 deaths have been recorded so far, and that number is expected to rise – Mr Trump sounded shaken.
“As far as the lives are concerned, nobody knows quite yet. We’re up to a certain number, but we have got a lot of people that aren’t accounted for yet. Right now, we want to take care of the people who are so badly hurt,” Mr Trump said.
California Govenor Jerry Brown walked with Mr Trump and told reporters that the state’s requests are being answered.
“It’s just the big, massive cleanup after a terrible tragedy,” said Mr Brown, a frequent Trump critic. “The federal government can provide some help, and a lot of money and some expertise. We’ll all pull through it together.”
Mr Trump toured fire-damaged areas in both Northern and Southern California, making a rare visit to a state he has often demonised as a “sanctuary” for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Mr Trump’s one-day visit to the state thrust him into a role of uniter and consoler that he has never occupied comfortably. The president seemed moved by the scale of the loss around him and was solicitous of Mr Brown and govenor-elect Gavin Newsom. But he said more about the firefighters and other rescuers deployed to the fire than about the victims.
At an incident command centre in Chico, Mr Trump called the fire “a monster” and praised rescuers.”They’re out there fighting, and they’re fighting like hell,” Mr Trump said. “It’s like total devastation.”
The Camp Fire covers an area north of Sacramento that is the size of Chicago. Firefighters said on Saturday that it is slightly more than 50 per cent contained.
As of Saturday morning, there were 71 deaths and 9,700 homes destroyed as a result of the 150,000-acre fire, which started on Nov 8, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.
Mr Trump said other countries, including Sweden, do a better job “cleaning the floor” of the forest, to reduce forest fires. He said he hopes the Camp Fire will be the last one of such size and devastation because of changes to forest-management practices.
“I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent,” Mr Trump said. “Hopefully, this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”
All of California is in some stage of drought or abnormally dry conditions, with much of the burned area of Butte County in moderate drought.
As Mr Trump drove from Paradise to a meeting with rescuers, local and law enforcement officials, supporters and a few protesters lined the road. One protester held aloft a sign reading, “Moron, we are in a drought.”
Governor Brown and Mr Newsom flew with Mr Trump and stood with him as he spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One.
“Yes, yes,” Mr Brown responded when asked whether the fires are linked to climate change. “We’ll let science determine this over a longer period of time,” he said. “Right now we’re collaborating on the most immediate response, and that’s very important.”
Mr Trump jumped in a few moments later: “We have different views but maybe not as different as people think.”
Mr Trump has called climate change “a hoax”, but has also said it is real.
“Trump is basically ducking the fact that climate change has to be taken in account in understanding the conditions that set the stage for the fires,” said environmentalist and former State Department official Rafe Pomerance.
“I think what he needs to do is get his facts first, then open his mouth,” said Ms Natalie Smith, 51, who evacuated her rented Paradise home. “We’ve got people up there we don’t even know if they’re alive, and he’s worried about cleaning up our forests? We’ve got thousands of people with no homes sleeping on the ground, and he’s worried about us cleaning up our forests? Really?”
On top of that, she said, Mr Trump’s visit to see the devastation tied up traffic on Saturday. “Fly over it!” Ms Smith said.
Of all the possessions she lost, she was most upset about never seeing her wedding ring and great-grandmother’s china again. “I got out with the clothes on my back and my cat in a box,” she said.
Mr Trump drew wide criticism for a tweet last week blaming the wildfires on “gross mismanagement” of California timberlands and threatening to hold back federal funding from the Democrat-led state.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he wrote. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
Mr Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, called Mr Trump’s words “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines”.
No wildfire in California history has done more damage than the Camp Fire. It burned down the forest town of Paradise, Mr Trump’s first stop after landing at a military base north of Sacramento.
The Woolsey Fire started northwest of Los Angeles the same day and has been moving toward the Pacific Coast. It has killed at least two people and destroyed 483 structures. Among the areas threatened by the fire is Thousand Oaks, which is still grieving after 12 people were killed in the Nov 7 mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill.
The list of people unaccounted for in the Camp Fire exceeded 1,000 last Friday, after officials released more than 600 names in an effort to identify those found by friends and relatives.
Signs of the wildfires were everywhere in the region Mr Trump toured.
In the morning, trucks carried modular homes north on the highway toward Chico. Local weather reports deemed the air quality “dangerous for everyone” 100 miles south of Paradise.
Mr Tony Terrano, a 47-year-old welder and fabricator from Magalia, near Paradise, thought he could defend his home with a water hose. Six days later, the water ran out, and he and his three-year-old pit bull Mo Mo fled on foot.
Firefighters spotted him, he said, and took him to a sheriff’s command centre, where he got a ride to the Red Cross shelter at the Neighbourhood Church in Chico. There, a half-dozen evacuees sat outside and watched TV news coverage of Mr Trump’s visit.
“We’re happy he’s here because we need the funding,” said Ms Allison Bazan, a 24-year-old criminal-justice student, who lost the Paradise home she and her husband had moved into three months ago. “We’d like our town to be rebuilt. People need to put political points of view aside right now if they want their town rebuilt. We need to look at this from a financial standpoint more so than personal opinion.”
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