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Trump to visit California as deadly wildfires rage

  • Published at 12:38 pm September 13th, 2020
California fire
File photo: The Bobcat Fire burns through the Angeles National Forest on September 11, 2020 north of Monrovia, California AFP

Trump plans to meet with the heads of California's emergency services, battling fires that have scorched more than 3.2 million acres in the state this year

US President Donald Trump said he will meet emergency services in California on Monday as record fires that have killed 31 people smothered the West Coast in dense smog.

Officials warned of further fatalities with swathes of land in California, Oregon and Washington still cut off by flames fuelled by tinder-dry conditions, as presidential challenger Joe Biden linked the fires to climate change.

The unprecedented infernos have now burnt through nearly 5 million acres, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

Trump plans to meet with the heads of California's emergency services, battling fires that have scorched more than 3.2 million acres in the state this year -- an annual record, with nearly four months of fire season still to come.

He has made little comment about the blazes in recent weeks, but at a Nevada campaign event on Saturday he acknowledged the scope of the disaster.

"They never had anything like this," Trump said. "Please remember the words, very simple, forest management."

But Biden, speaking earlier, said the causes were much broader: "The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable -- climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life."

"President Trump can try to deny that reality, but the facts are undeniable."

Worsening the sense of environmental catastrophe, all five of the world's most air-polluted cities Saturday were on the West Coast, according to IQAir, with dense smog and ash coating the atmosphere from Los Angeles up to Vancouver in Canada.

In Portland, thick, choking smoke blanketed the downtown area Saturday morning.

'Dropped out of the sky'

More than 20,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, with officials warning that a respite provided by the arrival of cooler weather could end on Monday as warmer, drier conditions return.

Most of the fatalities have occurred in California and Oregon, with emergency services in the two states recording 30 deaths. 

Among them was a 13-year-old boy in Oregon, found in a car with his dog in his lap. The road was so hot it had melted the tires as he tried to flee.

Emergency official Andrew Phelps warned Oregon is "preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost."

Preparations have been hampered by online claims that "extremists" are intentionally setting fires in Oregon, which have been debunked by the FBI.

Facebook said Saturday it was removing the posts, some of which sought to link the blazes to Antifa -- a structureless movement that says it is dedicated to fighting fascism and is a favoured target of conservatives.

"This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumours are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public," wrote Facebook spokesman Andy Stone.

In Estacada, a rural Oregon town just miles from a fire, that was deserted earlier this week, some inhabitants returned from evacuation Saturday and patrolled the streets with guns for fear of looting, according to an AFP reporter.

Others holed up indoors as thick acrid smoke hung in the air and fresh layers of ash from nearby blazes continued to blanket the streets.

Police in Multnomah County, where Portland is situated, issued a notice threatening arrest to armed residents who had established roadblocks near their communities.

Joy, a 56-year-old woman sheltering outside Portland who declined to give her last name, told AFP that she and her daughter don't know if their house in Aims -- a short drive east -- is still standing.

In California, Butte County sheriff Kory Honea said additional officials had been brought in to check for human remains, but "right now, the areas that we need to search are too hot."

In a rare sliver of good news, one believed fire victim in Butte County turned out to be a burned anatomical skeleton from a local classroom.

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