President Donald Trump was to arrive Saturday in California where more than 1,000 people are listed missing in the worst-ever wildfire to hit the wealthiest US state, which is at the forefront of resistance to Trump’s environmental and other policies.
The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, the so-called Camp Fire, has now claimed 71 lives after authorities found eight additional sets of human remains.
The fire has devoured an area roughly the size of Chicago.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters the number of people unaccounted for almost doubled from 631 to 1,011 in 24 hours as authorities received more reports of people missing, and as emergency calls made when the fire broke out are reviewed.
“The information I am providing you is raw data and we find there is the likely possibility that the list contains duplicate names,” he said, adding that some people who had escaped could be unaware they were listed as missing.
The inferno erupted November 8, laying waste to the town of Paradise at the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and sending thousands fleeing.
Trump would “meet with individuals impacted by the wildfires,” a White House spokeswoman said, but in an interview with Fox News ahead of his trip, the president said he was going “just to see the firefighters.”
In the interview he also reiterated an earlier claim that mismanagement of California’s forests was to blame for the fires, though he acknowledged climate change may have contributed “a little bit.”
“You need forest management. It has to be,” Trump told Fox.
Roslyn Roberts, 73, forced from her home in Paradise, said she voted for Trump but would disagree with him if she has the chance on Saturday.
“I would tell him that this fire has nothing to do with forest mismanagement. Thousands and thousands of homes got destroyed with no trees around,” she said amongst other evacuees at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross in a church.
In the community of Chico, just west of Paradise, volunteers had erected a tented encampment for others forced from their homes.
“Just trying to make it day by day. It’s all we can do. Just take the resources that they’re giving us and then try to make it the best,” Dustin Kimball, who worked at the Paradise cemetery, said in front of a tent.
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s administration and President Donald Trump’s Republicans have repeatedly clashed over issues including environmental and immigration regulations, as well as “net neutrality” governing access to the internet.
Days ago Trump threatened to cut federal funding to California over its alleged “gross mismanagement” of forests but late Friday he tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting Brown and his newly-elected successor Gavin Newsom.
“We are with you!” Trump said.
The Camp Fire has burned 146,000 acres (59,000 hectares) and was 50 percent contained by Friday, California’s fire service said.
Authorities said 47,200 people had been evacuated because of the fire and nearly 1,200 were living in shelters.
Smoke from the fire forced the closure of public schools in San Francisco on Friday and the shutdown of the city’s iconic cable cars as the Air Quality Index soared to 271, comparable to Dhaka, Bangladesh and worse than Kolkata, India.
A blanket of haze enveloped the region and the Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in thick smog.
Much of the rescue work is now focused on Paradise, a community that was home to many retirees who found themselves unable to get out in time.
Hundreds of rescuers, backed by sniffer dogs, have been conducting a painstaking house-to-house search, as authorities collect DNA from relatives of the missing to help with body identification.
“I’m still going to keep on looking and hope for the best,” said Jhonathan Clark, who was hunting for his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.
“My dad is starting to lose hope a little bit,” he told AFP.
Adding to the misery
Three other people have died in southern California in another blaze dubbed the Woolsey Fire, which engulfed parts of Malibu, destroying the homes of several celebrities.
That inferno, which is about two-thirds the size of the Camp Fire, was close to 80 percent contained by Friday, and authorities predicted they would have it under control by Monday.
Adding to the misery of Camp Fire survivors, an outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus has been reported at several shelters.
Public health officials said 41 people had been sick with vomiting and diarrhea as of Wednesday evening and 25 had to be hospitalized.
While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming negligence.