By Kurtis Alexander
President Trump made a rare visit to smoke-choked California on Saturday, joining Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to tour what he called the "really, really bad" devastation of the Camp Fire and pledging to help with the still-unfolding disaster.
Word that Trump was coming to the deep-blue state had initially touched off anxieties among both residents and the Democratic leadership, a tension heightened by the president's recent claims that California's "poor" forest management was to blame for the deadly fire.
But even as Trump continued to plug his case about shoddy forestry, while downplaying the role of climate change in the wildfire season, he and the state's top executives appeared to put aside their differences during their two hours together in hard-hit Butte County. At least 76 people have died in the Camp Fire, and that number may grow.
"Right now, we want to take care of the people who have been so badly hurt," Trump said during a stop at the burned-out Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in Paradise. "This is very sad to see. As far as the lives are concerned, nobody knows quite yet."
Melted cars and the charred debris of a neighborhood surrounded Trump as his black windbreaker and a "USA" baseball cap helped fend off blowing ash. Brown, Newsom, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long and Paradise Mayor Jody Jones walked alongside the president. Conversation was light in the community that remains under evacuation. But at one point Trump gave Brown a pat on the back.
"Jerry and I have been speaking, and Gavin and I have now gotten to know each other," he said. "We're all going to work together."
Since Trump's criticism of California's forest policy last weekend, the president has focused more on the work of fire crews and the losses of residents, expressing support. But when questioned by reporters about his remarks on the state's forests, he didn't back down on his contention that land managers had let California become too overgrown with dangerous fuels.
"We do have to do management, maintenance," he said. "We've got to take care of the floors, you know the floors of the forest, it's very important."
In a new twist on the debate, Trump added that the "forest nation" of Finland could serve as an example: "They spend a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem."
The president arrived in California on Air Force One, which touched down at Beale Air Force Base north of Sacramento amid hazy skies shortly before 10 a.m. GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Butte County Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa were also aboard. A Marine helicopter was waiting to take Trump to the fire area.
A motorcade ferried the president from the Chico Municipal Airport to Paradise on a route lined by hundreds of onlookers, about half wearing masks to protect themselves from the smoky air. There were also several protesters.
The Camp Fire, which began Nov. 8, has raged across more than 149,000 acres, almost completely wiping out Paradise, a foothill town of 27,000, as well as surrounding communities. More than 12,700 buildings have been leveled.
Recent strains between the president and Brown, with Newsom joining the fray, began just days after the fire's ignition when the president tweeted that such blazes could be avoided if the state managed its forests better. He threatened to withhold funding for California if the situation isn't fixed.
The tweet drew a widespread backlash, including from Brown and Newsom, complaining of its insensitivity as well as its misinformed premise.
Many of California's recent wildfires did not burn in forests, but in grasslands and oak-filled prairie. Also, much of California's forest land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Fire experts, as well as the governor, have underscored that hotter, drier conditions, attributed to climate change, have been the biggest factor in causing the increasingly intense burns.
Trump also visited the fire's incident command center in Chico, where he told reporters he had not changed his position that climate change is not the problem.
"No, no," Trump said. "I want to have a great climate, and I think we're going to have forests that are really safe."
Brown remained mostly quiet on the issue during a meeting of firefighters at the command center. He thanked the president for his support but said he had the situation under control.
"What needs to be done is what's being done," Brown said earlier in the day.
Chico resident and Paradise native Eric Danielli, like many in Butte County, had conflicted feelings about Trump's visit.
The owner of the popular breakfast spot Café Coda, whose father lost his home, doesn't see eye to eye with Trump politically and he was especially angered that the president used the fire to take shots at California forest policy. But he believed that the nation's chief executive should see the extent of the calamity.
"I wish the president would have chosen his words more wisely, but this is what he should be doing," Danielli said.
Paradise residents Fred Bowerman, 56, and his fiancee, Tami Wright, were more excited about the president's appearance. The couple stood outside the evacuation area in Chico waving a "Make America Great Again" flag, one of the few items they had with them after losing their home and belongings in the fire.
"I'd just like to give him a fist bump," Bowerman said, "and tell him to keep doing what he's doing."
Trump's visit to California was just his second trip to the Golden State during his presidency. In March, he toured the border with Mexico in promotion of his proposed wall.
After concluding his tour of Butte County at around 1 p.m., the president flew to Southern California, where he examined damage from the Woolsey Fire and met with families of the victims in this month's Thousand Oaks shooting.
(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle