President Donald Trump, touching down under smoky skies at McClellan Park for a briefing on the California wildfires, blamed uncleared dead trees and leaves for flames that have burned more than 3 million acres and killed 24 in the state.
The Republican president met with California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the business park, which is also the home to hangars for CalFire aircraft.
“When trees fall down, after a short period of time, about 18 months, they become really dry. They become really like a matchstick…. and they just explode,” Trump told reporters on the tarmac.
“Also leaves, if you have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground, it just sets it up. It’s really a fuel for a fire. So they have to do something about it.”
In a round-table briefing shortly afterward, the Democratic governor told the president that forest management is unquestionably a piece of the problem, but noted that 57 percent of the forests in California are on federally controlled land.
The visit brought into sharp relief the differences between the two on climate change and COVID-19. The governor, wearing a mask in his meeting with the president, says the fires are a direct result of a “climate damn emergency” and vowed to accelerate efforts to develop green energy in California. The president who has pursued policies that encourage the use of fossil fuels, did not wear a mask during his visit. Local reporters in close proximity to the president were required to take a rapid COVID-19 test before he arrived.
Newsom administration officials distributed an eight-page briefing packet to the president and his staff, including charts showing the rise of California’s average temperatures and increasing state spending on fires and forestry even as federal spending stayed flat. One page had a single sentence in large yellow font: “10 of the 20 most destructive California wildfires were in the last 5 years.”
“The hots are getting hotter. The drys are getting drier,” Newsom told Trump, noting the state is also experiencing grass and brush fires in addition to forest fires. “Something has happened to the plumbing of the world…. We submit the science is in, and observed evidence is self evident that climate change is real… Please respect the difference of opinion out here as it relates to this fundamental issue of climate change.”
The president replied, “Absolutely.”
Later, Trump brushed off concerns about climate change voiced by California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, who said that the earth is warming. Trump told Crowfoot that the weather “will start getting cooler.”
“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot said.
“I don’t think science knows,” Trump responded.
Six other federal, state and local officials participated in the briefing and roundtable discussion, including Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor, Cal Fire Director Thom Porter and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.
Outside the tarmac gates, several hundred supporters of the president gathered, few wearing masks to protect against COVID-19. A smaller crowd of Black Lives Matter activists, largely wearing masks, marched through the park to protest the president’s visit, racism and police violence. Others carried signs supporting former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
At one point a car swerved toward pedestrians, injuring one of them, who was taken away in an ambulance. An accelerating CHP car also injured at least one demonstrator.
Biden weighed in from Wilmington, Del., saying another Trump term would only exacerbate the unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes devastating coastal communities.
“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these record wildfires, record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly,” the Democratic presidential candidate said. “This is another crisis he won’t take responsibility for. The West is literally on fire and he blames the people whose homes and communities are burning.”
The president also used his visit to recognize seven members of the National Guard for their dramatic helicopter rescue of 242 people trapped by the flames of the Creek Fire last week. He awarded them the Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroism.
“They flew into blazing flames, raging wind… to rescue families at the Mammoth Pool campground,” Trump said. They were warned the conditions were incredibly dangerous, but they ”decided to continue anyway, knowing they might not return.”
On Friday, Trump tweeted thanks to the more than 28,000 firefighters and first responders battling the blazes. But off Twitter, Trump had done little to publicly address the western fires that have burned millions of acres in California, Oregon and Washington before his Sacramento trip.
Since mid-August, thousands of fires have raged across California, killing 24 and burning more than 3.3 million acres, an area nearly the size of Connecticut.
Most of the fires were sparked by lightning, perpetuated by triple-digit heatwaves and spread by wind through the state’s parched forests, vulnerable and full of tinder after years of drought.
Before COVID-19, Newsom and Trump frequently attacked one another over issues ranging from homelessness to water policy. The pandemic forced the two men to work more closely together, bringing a sort of truce. They even complimented each other.
Cracks in the relationship showed last month when Newsom criticized Trump’s climate policies during a video shown during the Democratic National Convention. Newsom says Trump has not shown environmental leadership needed as greenhouse gases build in the atmosphere, driving climate change that makes California’s fire seasons longer and more dangerous.
Trump in turn has blamed Democrats in California for failing to clear tinder from the state’s wilderness. During a 2018 visit to California in the aftermath of the deadly Camp Fire, Trump met with then governor-elect Newsom and argued that the state needed to do more “raking” of its forest floors.
But despite the public bickering, Newsom says he and Trump work well together in emergencies and that the president has never failed to send California disaster aid when asked, including for the current fire emergency.
Staff writer Lara Korte contributed to this report.