Sep. 14--California's plight took center stage Monday in the race for the White House as President Donald Trump visited the the Golden State in the midst of an epic wildfire season that has ravaged Western states, blaming "forest management" while his Democratic rival called him a "climate arsonist."
Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee and former vice president, said Monday from his home state of Delaware that Trump is a "climate arsonist" whose refusal to accept and address climate change is making fires and other disasters worse.
"If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?" Biden said, as Sen. Kamala Harris, his vice presidential running mate, headed to California.
Protesters and supporters gathered in Sacramento where Trump arrived at 10:40 a.m. to meet with California fire officials at McClellan Park, a former Air Force base that closed in 2003. After touching down, Trump told reporters before a ceremony recognizing the California National Guard that "it's a great honor to be here" and that "we want to pay our respects" to those who lost their lives in the recent wildfires.
Regarding the wildfires, Trump said "I think this is more of a management situation" that requires more cutting to thin fire fuel -- "you see it in Europe." The president said "we've been working well with Gavin" Newsom, California's governor, to address issues and added that he acted quickly to declare an emergency and speed federal aid, but dodged questions whether climate change is affecting the state.
"You'll have to ask the governor that question," Trump said. "I don't want to step on his toes."
Newsom joined state fire and emergency officials in Monday's wildfire briefing with the president. Following the private briefing, the governor was headed to Butte County, one of the active fire areas in the state.
The fires have injected disaster management and climate change into the burning hot 2020 presidential race that is at its peak but mostly being fought in battleground states back east, with the West Coast expected to vote solidly Democratic.
"In the presidential campaign, California wildfires can become a prop for both candidates," said Dan Schnur, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden would like to see the problem addressed, but also recognize political opportunities that the fires present for them.
"Trump gets to play the role of concerned commander in chief today and then he can go back to other parts of the country to ridicule California to his most loyal supporters," Schnur continued. "Biden gets the chance to reinforce his climate-change credentials to swing voters and also to paint Trump as uncaring and out of touch. Neither one of them is seriously competing for votes from California, but both could reap the benefits elsewhere."
Western wildfires that erupted last month from lightning strikes have grabbed national headlines as they set records for acres burned in California and also burned across Oregon and Washington. The fires have burned more than 3.1 million acres in California and filled the air with smoke so thick it dimmed the skies to an eerie orange last week.
The president on Friday thanked firefighters on social media Friday and announced disaster aid for states.
The Biden-Harris campaign said Harris will return to California on Monday and meet Tuesday with emergency service personnel for an assessment of the state's wildfires before heading to Las Vegas. Harris mentioned the fires on social media over the weekend, suggesting the federal government hasn't done enough to help wildfire victims.
California's 2018 fire season had set a record with nearly 2 million acres burned in wildfires that included the 153,336-acre Camp Fire that incinerated the town of Paradise. Sparked by faulty electrical equipment during a November wind storm, it killed 85 and become the deadliest and most destructive in state history.
Last year's fire season was milder, with 259,863 acres burned and the most significant blaze the 77,758-acre Kincade Fire also ignited by utility equipment in a wind storm. But most of the state's worst fire seasons have come in the last five years. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said five of the state's largest fires on record have burned this year, and blamed "extreme weather conditions."
Newsom said 24 people have died and 44,000 people have been evacuated because of the fires.
Newsom has generally avoided criticizing Trump directly, but last week pointedly criticized "climate deniers" who dismiss the role that burning coal, oil and gas for heating, power and transportation plays in warming the planet -- something the state has been trying to fix by aggressively pursuing renewable solar and wind energy, though its policies drew some criticism last month after power shortages and rolling blackouts.
Last month, California officials signed a major agreement with the federal government that aims to reshape how forests are managed. Under the plan, California agencies and the U.S. Forest Service will use brush clearing, logging and prescribed fires to thin out 1 million acres a year by 2025, and roughly double the current rate of thinning, which already is double rates from a few years ago.
The Forest Service and the state Natural Resources Agency also committed to drawing up a 20-year plan by next year to identify which areas of the state will get priority for thinning projects.
Jessica Morse, deputy secretary for forest resource management at the California Natural Resources Agency, said last month that "the legacy of fire suppression has contributed to the overstocked forests that we have today," and that "it's leading to catastrophic wildfires that are compounded by climate change."
During Monday's meeting between Trump and Newsom, the president said he will award the Flying Cross to seven first responders the governor had recommended for rescuing people trapped by the fires, according to a press pool report from the Sacramento Bee. Newsom said "it's great to have you back here in the state," and thanked Trump for helping California during the fires, saying federal support received may be a record.
Regarding the factors fueling the blazes, Newsom said "there's no question... that we have not done justice on our forest management," but added "that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this." Trump expressed doubts -- "I don't think the science knows," but Newsom urged him to "please respect the difference of opinion out here when it comes to climate change."
"Absolutely," Trump replied.
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.
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