At opposite ends of the country, President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden presented vastly different views Monday about the cause of the historic, destructive wildfires in the Western United States, which have killed at least 35 people.
In California, the president — brushing aside concerns about climate change as a catalyst for the increasing number and intensity of such fires — reiterated his call for Western states to practice better forest management.
“When trees fall down after a short period of time, they become very dry — really like a matchstick,” said Trump on arrival in California. “And they can explode. Also leaves. When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the fires.”
Trump’s “climate denial” did not cause the fires, Biden said in his home state of Delaware. But if the president gets a second term, “These hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly.”
Speaking outdoors with a field of wheat as the backdrop fewer than 50 days before the national election, Biden added, “If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?”
The former vice president said Trump’s approach is to ignore the facts and “deny reality,” calling that a full surrender to the effects of climate change.
Amid the real peril, this is also a time of extraordinary possibilities, said Biden, adding that as president he would take “urgent action” to combat global warming.
Trump has stayed mostly silent about the widespread devastation in the three solidly Democratic states — California, Oregon and Washington — where more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land has burned.
Among those briefing Trump in California on Monday was Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, a vocal critic of the president.
Newsom noted that 56% of the land in California is federally owned, so the federal government has a major responsibility in improved forest management along with the state.
“It’s a big problem, and it will get solved,” said the president.
Newsom told Trump, “We feel very strongly the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting dryer. Something has happened to the plumbing of the world, and we come from a perspective, humbly, that we assert the science that climate change is real. Please respect the difference of opinion out here with respect to the fundamental issue of climate change.”
Trump replied, “Absolutely.”
The president, however, also predicted that the climate “will start getting cooler."
"Just watch. I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Trump has often questioned the science of climate change, instead blaming poor forest management for the spread of the fires and their intensity. His visit to California, where polls show the majority of voters sharply oppose his reelection, gave the president an opportunity to offer sympathy for the victims of the fires and emphasize the federal firefighting assistance he has approved.
“We say God bless you to those who were killed in this serious fire. We are showing and give support to the people of California,” Trump said.
The president has dispatched more than 26,000 federal personnel and 230 helicopters to fight the fires, according to the White House.
Trump also presided Monday over a ceremony to award seven members of a California National Guard helicopter crew the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing hundreds of stranded campers who had become surrounded by fire.
Smoke and flames have combined to envelop the cities of San Francisco, Seattle and Portland with some of the worst air quality in the world.
The massive clouds of smoke blanketing the region have endangered the health of millions of residents.
Air quality across the Pacific Northwest state of Oregon was characterized by state environmental officials as “hazardous” or “very unhealthy.”
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes.
Visibility has been less than a half kilometer in some places, according to the National Weather Service, making it dangerous to drive.
Ken Bredemeier in Washington contributed to this report.