WILMINGTON, Del., MCLELLAN PARK, Ca. (Reuters) – The wildfires sweeping the west coast states assumed center stage on Monday in the U.S. election campaign, with President Donald Trump visiting California after blaming the blazes on poor forest management and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, stressing the role of climate change in stoking the fires.
The Republican president, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, is due to meet with firefighters and emergency officials in Northern California. Democrats have blasted Trump for remaining mostly silent about the largest wildfires in state history, except for his efforts to blame the blazes on failures by the state government.
Biden, slammed by Republicans for not visiting disaster areas, spoke from his home state of Delaware on the threat of extreme weather that climate scientists have said is supercharging fires.
“I think this is more of a management situation,” Trump said, when asked by a reporter if climate change was a factor behind the fires, claiming that many other countries are not facing a similar problem. “They don’t have problems like this. They have very explosive trees, but they don’t have problems like this.”
He said forest management changes were something that could be tackled quickly.
“When you get into climate change, well is India going to change its ways? And is China going to change its ways? And Russia? Is Russia going to change its ways. So, you have a lot of countries that are going to have change because they make up … a big preponderance of the pollution,” he said after landing in McLellan Park, California.
Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris accord that laid out an international approach to climate change while Biden says climate change is on his list of major crises facing the United States.
Wildfires across Oregon, California and Washington state have destroyed thousands of homes and a half dozen small towns since August, scorching more than 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) and killing more than two dozen people.
Drone footage showed hundreds of homes reduced to ashes in the southern Oregon communities of Phoenix and Talent, around 5 miles (8 km) south of Medford last week, after a wind-driven firestorm raced north, blowing embers into trailer parks and residential subdivisions.
Search-and-rescue teams went through gutted homes in more than half a dozen Oregon communities looking for human remains after state officials said they expected “mass casualty incidents.”
Trump has authorized federal disaster aid for both California and Oregon.
Trump’s administration has waged a series of legal battles with Democratic-run California, the most populous U.S. state, on a variety of issues including immigration and environmental policy. The state for its part has sued his administration more than 100 times. Trump lost badly in California in the 2016 election and is expected to fare poorly there in November.
The president and his administration have sought to pin the blame for the large wildfires on state officials, saying fuel-choked forests and scrub need to be thinned, fire breaks must be cut and flammable dead leaves cleared from forest floors.
Biden has blamed human-caused higher average temperatures in U.S. West coast states for the wildfires.
Calling Trump a “climate arsonist,” Biden said, “If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned by wildfires? How many suburban neighborhoods will have been flooded out,” he said.
Biden was referring to Trump’s focus on suburban voters, saying Biden would bring chaos to them by changing policy on low-income housing. Trump has struck a “law and order” theme in the wake of anti-racism protests.
SERVING FOOD TO EVACUEES
After four days of brutally hot, windy conditions in Oregon, the weekend brought calmer winds blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean, and cooler, moister weather that helped crews make headway against blazes that burned unchecked last week.
In Clackamas County south of Portland, Oregon relief crews dished out food to some of the tens of thousands of residents ordered to evacuate. These residents faced the added challenge of gaining food and shelter during a pandemic.
“We want to make sure that everybody maintains social distance as much as possible,” said Jeremy Van Keuren, community resilience manager at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.
Around Phoenix and Talent, some people set up food stations in parking lots while others guarded homes from looters who tend to appear at dusk, according to a Reuters photographer.
A man was charged with arson on Friday for starting the blaze that burned towns and another man was arrested in Portland on Monday after he started six small fires that did not burn any structures, Portland police reported.
Police across Oregon have cautioned against “fake” posts blaming wildfires on left-wing anti fascists or right wing Proud Boy activists.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Adrees Latif and Maria Caspani; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool