U.S. President Donald Trump visited California Saturday to get a close-up look at the widespread damage that raging wildfires have inflicted on the state.
“Nobody would have ever thought this could have happened,” he said to reporters after walking through burned-out ruins in the Northern California town of Paradise. “It’s like total devastation.”
The death toll rose to 76 Saturday with more than 1,300 people unaccounted for. The county sheriff pleaded with fire evacuees to check the roster of people reported missing and to call in if they are safe. At least 9,700 homes were destroyed.
The blaze known as the Camp Fire is now the deadliest in California history. More than 5,500 firefighters were still trying to bring it under control. It is 55 percent contained.
“I think people have to see this really to understand it.” Trump said.
Trump was accompanied on his visit by Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, California Governor Jerry Brown, Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, and Federal Emergency Management Agency head Brock Long. He flew from Washington to California and back in one day.
He pledged to the California officials the support of the federal government, saying, "We're all going to work together." He vowed also to work with environmental groups on better forest management and added, "Hopefully, this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one."
But when asked whether the fire had changed his mind on climate change, Trump said, "No, no." He said he believed a lot of factors were to blame.
The president also visited a local command center in Chico, Calif., and praised the firefighters and other first responders. "You folks have been incredible," he said, adding that those battling the flames were "fighting like hell."
More than a week after the blaze erupted and raced through Paradise, it has burned about 590 square kilometers and is about 50 percent contained, officials said.
Late in the afternoon, Trump landed in Southern California, where the Woolsey Fire has burned nearly 390 square kilometers. Fire officials said the blaze had been about 60 percent contained by Friday. Evacuated residents were returning to the area.
En route to Southern California, Trump told reporters he had not discussed climate change with Brown and Newsom, both of whom accompanied him on the flight.
"We have different views," Trump said. "But maybe not as different as people think."
On the same issue, Brown told reporters, "We'll let science determine this over a longer period of time. Right now we're collaborating on the most immediate response, and that's very important."
Newsom added, "Once the cameras are gone, the press is gone, the rest of us are gone, we need to make sure we're there for the folks that have been impacted by these fires the next year or two, five, 10 as we rebuild the communities."
Before leaving Washington Saturday morning, Trump suggested the fire damage could have been mitigated if state officials had acted more responsibly.
"We will be talking about forest management. I've been saying for a long time. This could have been a lot different situation. ...There's no question about it," Trump told reporters at the White House.
Mike Levin, a Democrat who recently won a midterm election to represent Southern California's 49th District, posted a tweet Saturday that was directed at Trump. In addition to appealing for more federal assistance, the congressman-elect told Trump that finding fault was unwarranted.
Dear @realDonaldTrump,As you visit California today to see the impact of unprecedented wildfires, please consider providing more resources to the appropriate federal agencies. Don’t blame us and don’t make excuses. Listen to the scientists.— Mike Levin (@MikeLevinCA) November 17, 2018
While in Southern California, Trump was also to meet with family and friends of victims of a Nov. 7 mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, in which a gunman killed a dozen people in a bar before committing suicide.
Before boarding Air Force One for the return flight to Washington, Trump told reporters, "This has been a tough day when you look at all of the death from one place to the next.”