National News

Trump, Touring Fire Ruins in California, Repeats Disputed Claim on Forest Management

Posted November 17, 2018 10:47 p.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2018 7:34 a.m. EST

PARADISE, Calif. — President Donald Trump walked through the ashes of the Northern California town of Paradise on Saturday, promising to help the state recover but repeating his disputed view that forest management was to blame for the fire, the most destructive in California’s history.

The president, expressing shock at the scale of the devastation and praising the efforts of emergency workers, offered much more conciliatory words than he had used a week earlier when he accused state officials of mismanaging California’s forests and threatened to withhold financial assistance.

“Nobody would have ever thought this could happen,” Trump said Saturday, standing in the remains of a mobile home park in Paradise, the town in the Sierra Nevada foothills where most homes were incinerated by the Camp Fire.

“I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent,” he said. “Hopefully this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”

The president also visited Southern California, where the Woolsey Fire burned hundreds of homes and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the wealthy enclave of Malibu and surrounding areas west of Los Angeles.

Among the blackened trunks of evergreens here in Paradise, signs of the fire’s devastation were everywhere: tangled power lines on the ground; the charred rubble of washing machines and contorted metal of bed frames; a parking lot full of the skeletons of burned cars. Only one trailer in the park was left intact.

Trump was accompanied by Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, both of whom have been vocal critics of the president, especially on the issue of climate change.

“I think you have a lot of factors,” Trump said, when asked about the role of climate change in the fires.

Trump repeated his view Saturday that forest management — the partial clearing and cleaning of brush from forests — was partly to blame for the string of immense and deadly wildfires in recent years.

Calling forest management “a very big problem,” he said he had discussed the topic with Brown.

In a Twitter post last weekend, the president said that “there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” Experts said the president was wrong to point to forest management — many wildfires in California, including the Woolsey Fire in the south, have started in shrub land, not forests. They also point out that forest management in California is largely a federal responsibility; around 60 percent of the 33 million acres of forests in the state is owned by the federal government.

Brad Weldon, a carpenter who lives next to the mobile home park that Trump toured, said he was happy the president had visited. “It will open his eyes to what it is,” he said. Weldon, 63, said fires occur regularly during the dry summer months but nothing like the inferno that started Nov. 8.

Weldon described embers larger than basketballs flying past his house and a fire so intense that it roared as loudly as an aircraft engine. When storage sheds holding firearms and a nearby shop selling ammunition caught fire, it set off hundreds of rounds, sending bullets flying. The ground outside his house is still littered with casings and slugs.

“Everything around us was on fire,” said Weldon, who successfully defended his home with a garden hose and 5-gallon buckets. He is one of the few residents of Paradise still in the town, which has been evacuated. It was just the president’s second visit to the country’s most populous state since he was elected, underlining the depth of the divide between liberal California and a conservative administration. In campaign rallies before the midterm elections, Trump and Republican candidates singled out the state as a subject of derision over its high taxes, embrace of “sanctuary cities” or liberal social policy.

Issues like environmental regulation and recreational marijuana use have also become political flash points, and the wildfire was no exception.

Last week, as anger swelled in California over the president’s comments blaming forest management, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority leader, called Trump and described the severity of the fires.

Hours later, the president declared a disaster in the state, praised the firefighters and emergency medical workers for their “incredible courage” and pledged federal aid.

The death toll of the Camp Fire, now at 76, has climbed steadily as a team of more than 500 specialists searches for human remains.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office has listed 1,276 people missing from the fire, although Sheriff Kory Honea has cautioned that the tally is preliminary and includes many duplicates. But the latest figure, a significant increase from days earlier, has shocked even those who have surveyed the devastation.

The Camp Fire, which has burned through 149,000 acres and is only about half contained, is the deadliest in California history. It has destroyed 9,891 homes, 367 commercial buildings and more than 2,500 other structures.

The flames have decimated a part of the state that is sometimes referred to as the other California: a rural area of rice farms, almond and apple orchards and the evergreen forests of the Sierra Nevada. It is also a Republican enclave in a state that turned even more blue in the midterm elections.

The far north of California, a bloc of 13 counties that voted for Trump two years ago, makes up more than a fifth of the state’s land mass but only 3 percent of its population.

About 200 people, some of them wearing Make America Great Again hats and carrying Trump flags, gathered Saturday morning to meet Trump at the airport in Chico, a city on the edge of the devastated area. One of the few suggestions of dissent came from a protester along the route of the president’s motorcade who held a sign that said, “Moron, we’re in a drought.” Smoke from the fire has blanketed a large section of Northern California, closing schools and tourist attractions such as the former island prison of Alcatraz.

Mic McCrary, who lives with Weldon in the house that survived the fire, blared what he called “the most American songs I could think of” during Trump’s visit. He said he wished the president had knocked on his door.

“I would have said, ‘Give help to the people — we are the richest country on the planet,'” McCrary said. “It’s not socialism to help people.”