As fires rage, Trump has head 'in the sand': LA mayor

©Agence France-Presse

A sign in front of a tent along the highway near Salem, Oregon on September 13, 2020 reads

Portland (AFP) - Top officials in West Coast states where record-breaking fires have killed 33 people accused President Donald Trump on Sunday of being in denial about climate change, as he prepared to meet emergency services workers in California.

"This is climate change, and this is an administration that's put its head in the sand," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union."

Trump plans to meet Monday with the heads of California's emergency services, battling history-making infernos that have now burned through nearly five million acres (two million hectares), an area roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and an annual record -- with nearly four months of the fire season still to come.

Officials warned of further fatalities with swathes of land in California, Oregon and Washington still cut off by flames fueled by tinder-dry conditions of the kind climate change causes. 

Of the at least 33 people killed by the blazes since the beginning of summer, 25 died this week alone. Dozens were still missing on Sunday. 

Trump 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," said Trump, who systematically downplays global warming. "Please remember the words, very simple, forest management."

Garcetti hit back, saying that "anybody that lives in California is insulted by that."

"Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn't real," he said.

"We need real action. We need to reduce the carbon emissions that we have. And we need to make sure we can manage this water. This isn't about forest management or raking."

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Saturday it was "undeniable" that "climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life."

His running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, backed him up Sunday on Twitter, saying Trump "denies the evidence."

Worsening the sense of doom, five of the world's 10 most air-polluted cities Sunday were on the West Coast, according to IQAir, with dense smog and ash coating the atmosphere from Los Angeles up to Vancouver in Canada.

"It's apocalyptic," Washington state Governor Jay Inslee told ABC's "This Week."

"It's maddening right now we have this cosmic challenge to our communities, the entire West Coast of the United States on fire, to have a president to deny that these are not just wildfires, these are climate fires," he said.

'In shock'

More than 20,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, with officials warning that cooler weather could end Monday as warmer, drier conditions return.

Most of the fatalities have occurred in California and Oregon, with emergency services in the two states recording 32 deaths. 

Near the Beachie Creek Fire, east of Oregon state capital Salem, police had set up multiple road blockades on Sunday. Long lines of cars stretched in front of them, waiting in the thick fog to pass through.

Many were farmers trying to go home and feed their livestock.

"We went back to Mill City this morning, but police advised us not to as it is dangerous," resident Elaina Early told AFP. "The house is ok, but we leave now because the conditions are really not good.

"My son is six and he is in shock, it's hard for him," the 36-year-old added. "He keeps telling me, 'We live in a hotel now?'"

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

Facebook said Saturday it was removing the posts.

In Estacada, a rural Oregon town just miles from a fire, which 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.

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

Nearly one million acres of land have been torched in Oregon, double the normal annual amount, Governor Kate Brown said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." 

About 500,000 residents are on some level of evacuation status, and 40,000 people have actually evacuated.

"This is a wake-up call for all of us, that we have got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change," Brown said.

In California, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said additional officials had been brought in to check for human remains, but it was too hot to search.

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.