MCCLELLAN PARK, Calif. — President Donald Trump, touching down under smoky skies at McClellan Park for a briefing on the California wildfires, blamed uncleared dead trees and leaves for flames that have burned more than 3 million acres and killed 24 in the state.
The Republican president met with California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the business park, which is also the home to hangars for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's aircraft.
"When trees fall down, after a short period of time, about 18 months, they become really dry. They become really like a matchstick ... .and they just explode," Trump told reporters on the tarmac.
"Also leaves, if you have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground, it just sets it up. It's really a fuel for a fire. So they have to do something about it."
In a round-table briefing shortly afterward, the Democratic governor told the president that forest management is unquestionably a piece of the problem, but noted that 57% of the forests in California are on federally controlled land.
The visit brought into sharp relief the differences between the two on climate change and COVID-19. The governor, wearing a mask in his meeting with the president, says the fires are a direct result of a "climate damn emergency" and vowed to accelerate efforts to develop green energy in California. The president, who did not wear a mask during his visit, has pursued policies that encourage use of fossil fuels.
"The hots are getting hotter. The drys are getting drier," Newsom told Trump, noting the state is also experiencing grass and brush fires in addition to forest fires. "Something has happened to the plumbing of the world. ... We submit the science is in, and observed evidence is self evident that climate change is real ... Please respect the difference of opinion out here as it relates to this fundamental issue of climate change."
The president replied, "Absolutely."
Outside the tarmac gates, several hundred supporters of the president gathered, few wearing masks to protect against COVID-19. A smaller crowd of Black Lives Matter activists, largely wearing masks, marched through the park to protest the president's visit, racism and police violence. Others carried signs supporting Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
At one point a car swerved toward pedestrians, injuring one of them, who was taken away in an ambulance. An accelerating CHP car also hit at least one demonstrator.
Biden weighed in from Wilmington, Delaware, saying another Trump term would only exacerbate the unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes devastating coastal communities.
"Donald Trump's climate denial may not have caused these record wildfires, record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly," the Democratic presidential candidate said. "This is another crisis he won't take responsibility for. The West is literally on fire and he blames the people whose homes and communities are burning."
On Friday, Trump tweeted thanks to the more than 28,000 firefighters and first responders battling the blazes. But off Twitter, Trump had done little to publicly address the western fires that have burned millions of acres in California, Oregon and Washington before his Sacramento trip. It was his first visit to the city as president.
Over the weekend, Trump's allies took swings at Newsom over fire policy following the governor's visit to Butte County. Newsom bluntly connected the deadly fire season to climate change when he spoke at a news conference on burned-out land.
"We're in the midst of a climate emergency," Newsom said. "We're experiencing what so many people predicted decades ago ... I'm exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue."
Republicans, including Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., countered that the region needed help, "not a lecture."
"Getting them out of the smoke, into shelter, and extinguishing the fires is my number one priority. The President has extended his support to alleviate our suffering. Mr. Governor, what are you doing?" LaMalfa said in a press release.
Since mid-August, thousands of fires have raged across California, killing 22 and burning more than 3.3 million acres, an area nearly the size of Connecticut.
Most of the fires were sparked by lightning, perpetuated by triple-digit heatwaves and spread by wind through the state's parched forests, vulnerable and full of tinder after years of drought.
Before COVID-19, Newsom and Trump frequently attacked one another over issues ranging from homelessness to water policy. The pandemic forced the two men to work more closely together, bringing a sort of truce. They even complimented each other.
Cracks in the relationship showed last month when Newsom criticized Trump's climate policies during a video shown during the Democratic National Convention. Newsom says Trump has not shown environmental leadership needed as greenhouse gases build in the atmosphere, driving climate change that makes California's fire seasons longer and more dangerous.
Trump in turn has blamed Democrats in California for failing to clear tinder from the state's wilderness. During a 2018 visit to California in the aftermath of the deadly Camp fire, Trump met with then Gov.-elect Newsom and argued that the state needed to do more "raking" of its forest floors.
But despite the public bickering, Newsom says he and Trump work well together in emergencies and that the president has never failed to send California disaster aid when asked, including for the current fire emergency.