President Donald Trump toured the damage wrought by California’s deadliest wildfire Saturday, visiting the ruins of a mobile home park and pressing his argument that the state’s forests must be managed more aggressively to prevent future disasters.
With the death toll from the Camp Fire still rising, Trump met with Paradise Mayor Jody Jones and toured the charred wreckage of the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park. They passed a destroyed home where someone had hung an American flag, and picked their way past a downed streetlamp and other debris.
Bits of ash floated in the air, although neither the president nor anyone in his entourage wore masks. Trump later was briefed on details of the fire by Cal Fire officials at the agency’s incident command post in nearby Chico.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Trump said. “It looks like total devastation.”
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Later in the day, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced that five more bodies were found Saturday, bringing the total number of dead to 76. He also released the name of a sixth victim who had been identified: Lolene Rios, 56, of Paradise. Another 1,276 people remain missing, although that list likely includes duplications and errors. Sunday, another victim was found, raising the toll to 77.
Trump was accompanied by Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, two Democrats who’ve been outspoken adversaries of the Republican president. The two sides tried to downplay their differences, but some tensions were clear as the visit progressed.
Administrator Brock Long of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, making his second visit to the area in four days, told Trump it was “probably the worst disaster that I’ve seen in my career.” Long announced that 12,000 people have registered with FEMA for financial aid, and that $3 million has been handed out already.
Also in tow were two Republican congressmen: Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents the region, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. Trump spent about four hours in the area, including the time traveling by helicopter between Chico and Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, where Air Force One landed, before continuing on to Southern California.
At each stop, Trump reiterated his call for thinning the state’s forests in an effort to prevent future disasters.
“We have to do management, maintenance,” Trump said, wearing tan slacks, a dark windbreaker and a camouflage-style “USA” ball cap. “We’ll be working also with environmental groups. I think everybody’s seen the light.”
He cited the “forest nation” of Finland, which Trump said spends “a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.”
Trump’s tour Saturday marked his second visit to California in the nearly two years of his presidency. He previously traveled to San Diego in March to review border wall prototypes.
The Paradise visit came nearly a week after Trump infuriated California leaders and firefighters by blaming them for the Camp Fire damage, saying the state has let its forest become overgrown.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 10. “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!”
Brown, Newsom and others immediately blasted those comments. The Camp Fire started in the vicinity of the Plumas National Forest, and policy experts noted that the federal government manages 60 percent of California’s forested land.
Trump later approved an emergency declaration for the state and praised firefighters and first responders for their “incredible courage.” On Saturday, he and Brown attempted to downplay their differences.
“Jerry and I have been speaking, and Gavin and I have now gotten to know each other,” Trump said. “We’re all going to work together and we’ll do a real job.” He added, “Gavin’s committed, we’re all committed, I’m committed to make sure that we get all of this cleaned out and protected. We’ve got to take care of the floors, you know, the floors of the forest.”
When asked by reporters if witnessing the aftermath of the disaster had changed his mind about climate change, the president said, “No, no.”
“I have a strong opinion. I want a great climate. I think we’re going to have that and I think we’re going to have forests that are really safe,” Trump said.
Brown, who’s been at the forefront of international climate policy and once called Trump a “liar, criminal, fool” on the issue, said “there are a lot of elements to be considered” in reducing fire risk. He thanked Trump for shining a spotlight on California’s problems.
Asked again about climate change aboard Air Force One, while heading to Southern California to inspect the Woolsey Fire, Trump said, “We didn’t discuss it.”
Brown quietly said, “Obliquely.”
Later, talking to reporters in Malibu, Trump said, “I’ve known Jerry for a long time but I think we’ve gotten closer today than we’ve got over the last 20 years,” according to a pool report.
Despite his many conflicts with Trump, Brown has said the state needs to do more to thin out California’s forests. In September, as part of an agreement to reduce liability for electric utilities whose equipment ignites fires, Brown signed a bill that allocates $1 billion from the state’s cap-and-trade revenues over the next five years for forest thinning, mainly on private property.
“I think we’re all on the same path,” Trump said in Paradise.
Still, the schism between the California leaders and Trump was evident. Trump gave Brown a light slap on the back as they toured Paradise, but Newsom and Brown appeared to avoid the president for the most part. Newsom, the lieutenant governor, paid little attention to him.
Hundreds of area residents turned out to watch Trump’s motorcade travel between Chico and Paradise, with many wearing masks. The air quality was listed as “very unhealthy” in the region during the president’s visit. A few protestors showed up, with one holding up a sign that said, “Moron, we’re in a drought.” Another group carried a banner that compared climate change to the apocalypse.
Long, the FEMA chief, vowed once again to help the Paradise area recover from the catastrophe, which has displaced 50,000 residents and left more than 1,000 people in temporary shelters.
State officials have become increasingly anxious about what they consider a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, particularly with rain expected in a few days. More than 100 evacuees in shelters have come down with norovirus, while officials have said they plan to clear out an impromptu “tent city” that has grown up in the parking lot of the Chico Walmart.
Late Friday, Butte County officials urged well-wishers to send cash donations instead of clothing or other items. “Shelter and drop-off locations are at capacity and cannot take any more items!” the county said on its Facebook page.
Cal Fire on Saturday eased some of its evacuation orders, reducing areas mainly south of Durham-Pentz Road, south of Paradise, to evacuation warnings. That region is several miles south of the burn area, but Cal Fire advised motorists to drive slowly and watch out for firefighters. Although 55 percent contained, the fire grew another 3,000 acres since Friday night, to a total of 149,000 acres.
Meanwhile, life went on — in a manner of speaking — in the Chico-Paradise area. Not far from where Trump had stood hours earlier, fatigued search-and-rescue crews in soot-stained white jumpsuits ended their shifts and guzzled bottled water and packets of nuts. Outside a just-opened FEMA resource center at the Chico Mall,
Magalia residents Gary Nelson and Debbie Robertson spent the afternoon waiting in line for gift cards and other assistance. The couple, who’ve had spotty internet access, didn’t realize Trump had come to Butte County, but said his visit didn’t mean much given their current state. Nelson and Robertson, who live with their granddaughter, are living with their daughter in Chico for the time being.
They weren’t surprised when told Trump’s motorcade didn’t reach Magalia, which is several miles north of Paradise. “It’s not a big enough scope for the president to be concerned,” Robertson said.
Joining Trump on the trip was Paradise native Jamieson Greer, chief of staff to the U.S. Trade Representative. Greer told The Sacramento Bee on Friday that most of his family still lives in the area and lost their homes in the fire.
“Everyone has felt a sense of helplessness. All they could do is watch with a sense of horror,” he said.
Greer said he visited Paradise for his 20-year high school reunion over the summer, and brought his five children.
“I’m so grateful now that I got to do that and my kids got to see Paradise how I knew it,” he said.