The U.S. President Donald Trump expressed sadness Saturday at the devastation caused by fires in a California town, but persisted in his controversial claim that forest mismanagement is responsible for the tragedy which has left 76 dead and more than 1,000 listed as missing.
"This is very sad," Trump said after surveying the remains of Paradise, where nearly the only people out on the road were emergency services workers, surrounded by the twisted remains of a community incinerated by the flames.
"They're telling me this is not as bad as some areas; some areas are even beyond this, they're just charred," he added after looking at a street lined with melted cars, tree stumps and the foundations of wrecked houses.
The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history, the so-called Camp Fire, has now claimed 76 lives after authorities on Saturday confirmed five more victims. The blaze has devoured an area roughly the size of Chicago, destroying nearly 10,000 homes and more than 2,500 other buildings.
In Chico, near Paradise, Trump met with firefighters and other first responders at makeshift headquarters for emergency services. High-ranking fire officials recounted how quickly the fire spread, complicating evacuation efforts, as Trump studied a huge map spread across a table showing where fires continue to burn.
Keeping alive an earlier controversy, Trump repeated his claim that California had mismanaged its forests and was largely to blame for the fires. "I'm committed to make sure that we get all of this cleaned out and protected, [we've] got to take care of the forest, it's very important," Trump said in Paradise. Days ago Trump threatened to cut federal funding to California over its alleged "gross mismanagement" of forests.
Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, called Trump's earlier remarks "ill-informed," noting the federal government had cut spending on forest management. Asked if he believed climate change had played any role in the fires, Trump again pointed to the forest "management factor" and insisted that his "strong opinion" remained unchanged. Trump has long been skeptical of man's role in global warming despite mounting scientific evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is heating the planet and leading to more extreme weather. The inferno erupted Nov. 8, laying waste to Paradise in the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and sending thousands fleeing. The Camp Fire and another huge blaze have created a serious smoke problem across vast areas of the country's largest state, and when Trump stepped out of Air Force One at Beale Air Force Base north of capital city Sacramento, the sun struggled to cut through haze so dense it covered the base like a fog.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea had on Friday told reporters the number of people unaccounted soared from 631 to 1,011 in 24 hours as authorities received more reports of people missing, and after earlier emergency calls were reviewed.
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