From the ashes of a mobile home and RV park, U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday he had to come to the heart of California’s killer wildfire to fully grasp the scale of the desolation wrought on the landscape.
“We’re going to have to work quickly. Hopefully, this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one,” said the president, who pledged that improved forest management practices would diminish future risks.
“I think everybody’s seen the light and I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent,” Trump said in Paradise, the town largely destroyed by a wildfire ignited Nov. 8 that he called “this monster.”
At least 71 people have died across Northern California, and authorities are trying to locate more than 1,000 people, though not all are believed missing. More than 5,500 fire personnel were battling the blaze that covered 590 square kilometres and was about 50 per cent contained, officials said.
WATCH: Trump says California wildfires have not changed his mind on climate change
“It’s going to work out well, but right now we want to take care of the people that are so badly hurt,” Trump said from what remained of the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park. He noted “there are areas you can’t even get to them yet” and the sheer number of people unaccounted for.
“I think people have to see this really to understand it,” Trump said.
Several burned-out cars were nearby. Trees were burned, their leaves gone. Homes were totally gone; some foundations and twisted steel remained, as did a chimney. The fire was reported to have moved through the area at 80 mph.
The president later toured an operation centre, met with response commanders and praised the work of firefighters, law enforcement and representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in California,” Trump said.
Trump took a helicopter tour en route to Chico before he toured Paradise. A full cover of haze and the smell of smoke greeted the president upon his arrival at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento.
Trump left Washington early Saturday and didn’t expect to return to the White House until well past midnight. He was expected to travel several hundred miles south to visit with victims of a recent country music bar shooting. A gunman killed a dozen people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, north of Los Angeles, on Nov. 7 before committing suicide.
WATCH: Trump heads to California to visit wildfire victims
Trump long has struggled to convey empathy to victims of national disasters and tragedies. His first reaction to the fires came in a tweet last week: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests.”
Nature and humans share blame for the wildfires, but forest management did not play a major role, despite Trump’s claims, fire scientists say. Nature provides the dangerous winds that have whipped the fires, and human-caused climate change over the long haul is killing and drying the shrubs and trees that provide the fuel.
Trump stuck to that theme in his remarks just before departing on Saturday when he outlined what he planned to discuss with Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, both Democrats: “We will be talking about forest management. … The one thing is that everybody now knows that this is what we have to be doing and there’s no question about it. It should have been done many years ago, but I think everybody’s on the right side.”
Trump, who has long feuded with the political leaders of heavily Democratic California over issues such as immigration and voting, also has threatened to withhold federal payments to the state. After being criticized for his response, Trump shifted gears, expressing words of encouragement to first responders and those of sympathy for hit victims.
But when he was asked by Fox News in an interview set to air Sunday whether climate change played a role in the number of serious fires, he said: “Maybe it contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management.” He added that he was surprised to see images of firefighters removing dried brush near a fire. “This should have been all raked out.”
Brown and Newsom said Friday they welcomed the president’s visit, and “now is a time to pull together for the people of California.”