US President Donald Trump has toured areas scorched by wildfires in northern California as officials struggled to account for 1276 people still reported as missing.
“Nobody would have ever thought this would have happened,” Trump said while standing in front of burned-out structures in Paradise, a community razed to little more than a memory by the all-consuming flames.
“This is very sad to see it. As far as the lives are concerned, nobody knows quite yet. We’re up to a certain number but we have a lot of people who aren’t accounted for,” he said.
The confirmed death toll for wildfires across the state now stands at 76, with all indications and expectations suggesting it will continue to mount as search teams continue their grim quest for bodies.
Sixty-three bodies have been tentatively identified, pending DNA confirmation — although authorities have cautioned that some victims were so badly incinerated only dental records might be able to identify them..
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said much of the increase in the number of missing was due to his office’s efforts to comb through a backlog of emergency calls that came in during the first hours of the fire on November 8.
He said officials were sifting through the list for duplications and people who are known to have fled. Some 380 people had been located and taken off the list since Friday, he said, even as hundreds of fresh names were added.
Mr Trump surveyed the devastation left by the Camp Fire, which broke out more than a week ago north of the state capital Sacramento and descended in the dead of night on sleepy Paradise, a mecca for retirees and seniors and formerly home to nearly 27,000 residents.
Emergency officials fear the limited mobility of many Paradise seniors doomed them when they were overtaken by the fast-moving fire front..
In the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles, three people have been confirmed dead, according to CalFire authorities.
After Air Force One emerged from a smoky haze to land at a nearby military base, Trump boarded his Marine One helicopter and flew over fire-ravaged Butte County before landing at Chico Municipal Airport.
From there his motorcade made the 30-minute drive to Paradise, where he saw first-hand the ash and charred rubble.
He was joined by California Governor Jerry Brown, Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom and Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), amongst others.
More than 4,000 are fighting the Camp and Woolsey Fires in California that have burned over 170,000 acres. Our hearts are with those fighting the fires, the 52,000 who have evacuated, and the families of the 11 who have died. The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
Trump had drawn criticism for earlier comments he made on Twitter about the fires, blaming poor forest management for the “massive, deadly and costly forest fires” and threatening to withhold funding if the “gross mismanagement” was not remedied.
But while standing among the ruins of the Camp Fire, Trump said everyone was “on the same path.”
“What needs to be done is being done,” Governor Brown said in response to reporters’ questions.
Trump then met with officials at a fire command centre in Chico, where he described what he had just seen as “total devastation.”
The president, who has long expressed doubts about human-caused climate change, was asked by a reporter whether his views had changed in light of the fires. “No, no!” he said.
The Camp and Woolsey fires have destroyed more than 100,000 hectares of land and more than 10,000 residences and buildings, according to Cal Fire authorities. As of Saturday, the Camp Fire was only 55-per-cent contained.
Meanwhile, San Francisco and other nearby towns and cities were shrouded in thick smoke. City authorities are describing the air as “very unhealthy” and have told people to remain indoors unless there are pressing reasons to venture outside.
The Camp Fire has become California’s deadliest and most destructive, far exceeding the toll of the 1933 Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles County that killed 29.
Hundreds of evacuees are being housed in 14 emergency shelters set up in churches, schools and community centres around the region, with more than 46,000 people remaining under evacuation orders, authorities said.
Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in California and elsewhere across the West are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of the climate change Mr Trump rejected when he took the US out of the Paris Accords intended to limit global emissions.