Doubling down on his link between forest management and wildfires, President Donald Trump headed to Northern California on Saturday for a first-hand view of the still-raging Camp Fire, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century that has left at least 71 people dead.
Last week, the president blamed state mismanagement of forest land and water resources for the wildfires and threatened to cut off federal funds to the area.
He returned to the topic Saturday before leaving for California.
“We will be talking about forest management, I’ve been saying that for a long time,” he told reporters Saturday before leaving Washington. “This could have been a lot different situation, a very expensive issue, but very very inexpensive when you compare to even one of these horrible fires.”
The White House also said Trump would be meeting with individuals “impacted by the wildfires.”
The fire has destroyed 148,000 acres and is only 55 percent contained. Fire officials do not expect to bring the blaze under control until Nov. 30.
In more recent days, Trump had tempered the blame-game over the fires, offering prayers for the victims, praise for firefighters and emergency personnel and pledges of federal help.
“We will do everything in our power to support and protect our fellow citizens in harm’s way,” Trump said at the White House on Wednesday. “And we say, I think as a group – I can tell you as a group: God bless everybody. That’s a very tough situation.”
Major disaster and emergency declarations signed by Trump will cover up to 75 percent of the state’s costs for removing debris, providing transitional housing and more, according to the White House.
A public health emergency declared by the Department of Health and Human Services will let Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and their health-care providers meet their immediate health needs, officials said.
In an interview taped Friday and scheduled for broadcast on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump said he was surprised to see images of firefighters removing dried brush near a fire, adding, “This should have been all raked out.”
Asked if he thought climate change contributed to the fires, he said: “Maybe it contributes a little bit. The big problem we have is management.”
Despite the friction over the president’s remarks, he will be met by the current and incoming governors – both Democrats – Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom. The two welcomed the presidential visit, saying it’s time “to pull together for the people of California.”
California Professional Firefighters President Brian K. Rice said the president’s visit with the victims is welcome.
Rice, who was critical of Trump last weekend over his tweet, said in a statement Thursday: “We … appreciate what he’s done to expedite aid to the victims of this human tragedy.”
Butte County, which voted for Trump by 4 points over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, has been ground zero for the devastating fire.
The Camp Fire swept through the county, destroying the retirement town of Paradise, population 27,000, and heavily damaged the outlying communities of Magalia and Concow. It destroyed more than 9,800 homes and at its height drove out 52,000 people.
Authorities say they are still trying to locate 1,011 people unaccounted for after the fire swept through the area. Officials emphasize that not all the people listed are believed missing and may simply have not checked amid the chaos.
Contributing: Mike Chapman, Jim Schultz and Michele Chandler, Redding Record Searchlight