Trump visits fire-wracked California as more than 1,000 missing

AFP , Saturday 17 Nov 2018

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump listens to questions from the media as he leaves the White House, Saturday Nov. 17, 2018, in Washington, en route to see fire damage in California (Photo: AP)

President Donald Trump arrived in California Saturday to meet with officials, victims and the "unbelievably brave" firefighters there, as more than 1,000 people are listed as missing in the worst-ever wildfire to hit the US state.

"It seems many more people are missing than anyone thought even possible," Trump told reporters from the White House South Lawn shortly before boarding the Marine One helicopter to fly to Joint Base Andrews.

The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history, the so-called Camp Fire, has now claimed 71 lives.

The fire has devoured an area roughly the size of Chicago, destroying nearly 10,000 homes and 2,400 other buildings.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters the number of people unaccounted for had soared, from 631 to 1,011, in 24 hours as authorities received more reports of people missing, and after earlier emergency calls were reviewed.

"I want you to understand that this is a dynamic list," Honea told reporters. He said that on a positive note, 329 people who had been listed as missing have now been accounted for.

"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.

- 'Forest management' -
The inferno erupted November 8, laying waste to the town of Paradise in the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and sending thousands fleeing.

Trump on Saturday repeated an earlier claim that mismanagement of California's forests was largely to blame for the fires.

"We will be talking about forest management," he said. "This could have been a lot different situation."

Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, called Trump's earlier remark "ill-informed," and added: "It is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California."

California, which leans strongly Democratic, has been at the forefront of resistance to Trump's environmental and other policies.

But days after threatening to cut federal funding to California over its alleged "gross mismanagement" of forests, Trump tweeted Friday that he was looking forward to meeting Governor Jerry Brown and his newly elected successor Gavin Newsom.

"We are with you!" Trump said.

Roslyn Roberts, 73, who was 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 at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross in a church.

In Chico, just west of Paradise, volunteers had erected a tented encampment for evacuees.

"Just trying to make it day by day. It's all we can do," said Dustin Kimball, who worked at the Paradise cemetery.

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.

- Losing hope -
Smoke from the fire forced schools to close in San Francisco on Friday and the city's iconic cable cars to suspend service. The Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in thick smog.

Much of the rescue work is now focused on Paradise, where many retirees were unable to get out in time.

Rescuers with sniffer dogs have been conducting a painstaking house-to-house search.

"I'm still going to keep on looking and hope for the best," Jhonathan Clark told AFP. He was hunting for his brother, sister-in-law and nephew.

Three other people have died in southern California in a 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.

Adding to the misery of Camp Fire survivors, an outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus has been reported at several shelters. Twenty-five people had to be hospitalized, health officials said.

While the cause of the Camp Fire remains under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming negligence.

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