Donald Trump said he hoped the Camp fire would be the last wildfire in California while visiting the state on Saturday, as confusion continued over how many people remain unaccounted for.
“Hopefully this is going to be the last one of these because it was a really, really bad one,” Trump said while standing with California politicians in an RV and mobile home park that was burned down in the deadliest US wildfire in a century.
“Right now we want to take care of the people who have been so badly hurt,” Trump said.
The death toll has risen to 76 after authorities recovered an additional five remains on Saturday in the town of Paradise and nearby communities. Four remains were found in structures in Paradise, one was found outside in Concow. Officials also released the name of another victim: Lolene Rios, 56, of Paradise.
Authorities expect the death toll will grow, and have warned evacuees that when they return they could come upon remains that officials missed.
Several hundred workers have swept Paradise and other badly damaged communities for human remains since the fire began 8 November. The blaze has incinerated Paradise, population 27,000, and heavily damaged the outlying communities of Magalia and Concow.
“No system is perfect,” the Butte county sheriff, Kory Honea, said. “It is a daunting task … This is an expansive area.”
As of late on Saturday, 1,276 people remained “unaccounted for” – an increase from Friday. But, Honea reported, since the fire began authorities have found 714 people previously considered missing or unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, firefighters continue to battle the blaze, which covers an area of about 600 square kilometres (149,000 acres).
A red flag warning was in effect on Saturday evening through to Sunday morning due to high winds and low humidity. Those winds were expected to improve the air quality in the area.
Rain is in the forecast next week, which Cal Fire said would help suppress the fire.
Evacuation orders were lifted in some areas of Butte county, but about 46,000 citizens remain under evacuation, 983 of whom are being housed in shelters. The fire has destroyed 12,784 structures, including 9,891 homes.
Speaking from a charred clearing, Trump responded to questions about how the fire could have been prevented by referencing efforts to curb wildfires in Finland and saying forest floors needed to be taken care of.
Later, at an incident command center, a reporter asked Trump if visiting the devastated region had changed his opinion about climate change, about which he has said he doubts. Trump responded: “No.”
Trump has called climate change a “hoax”, though in October he walked back that comment, saying instead that he thinks climate change scientists are politically motivated and that he is not convinced it is a manmade issue.
The president has stirred resentment among survivors and many others over comments he made two days after the disaster on Twitter, then reiterated on the eve of his visit when he blamed poor forest management for the disaster.
Before boarding Air Force One to California on Saturday morning, Trump repeated his stance. “Everybody now knows that this is what we have to be doing … It should’ve been done many years ago,” he said.
Those comments echoed his initial reaction to the fires on 10 November when he also threatened to withhold federal payments. His words caused widespread outrage, though Trump subsequently approved a federal disaster declaration.
Trump flew by helicopter to the city of Chico to meet first responders and victims after Air Force One arrived at Beale air force base, about an hour’s drive from Paradise.
Trump was met on the tarmac by California’s governor, Jerry Brown, and governor-elect Gavin Newsom. Both the outgoing and incoming governor are Democrats and vocal critics of Trump, who greeted Brown with a pat on the back.
Brown and Newsom welcomed Trump’s visit, declaring it was time “to pull together for the people of California”.
The governors, Trump and the mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, first visited a destroyed mobile home and RV park with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), Brock Long.
“We have incredible people doing the job so we’ll get that done better than anyone else can do it,” said Trump, who wore a baseball cap with “USA” emblazoned on the front.
This patch of California, a former Gold Rush region in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is to some extent Trump country, with Trump beating Hillary Clinton in Butte county by 4 percentage points in 2016.
Dozens of people, many wearing respirator masks because of the smoke, greeted the president in California, lining the route of his motorcade. Most people were supporters, but some protesters dotted the route, including one who held a sign that said: “Moron, we are in a drought.”
But Trump has stirred resentment among survivors with his comments.
“If you insult people, then you go visit them, how do you think you’re going to be accepted? You’re not going to have a parade,” Maggie Crowder of Magalia said this week outside an informal shelter at a Walmart store in Chico.
But Stacy Lazzarino, who voted for Trump, said it would be good for the president to see the devastation up close: “I think by maybe seeing it he’s going to be like ‘Oh, my goodness,’ and it might start opening people’s eyes.”
Authorities attribute the death toll in part to the speed with which flames raced through tParadise, driven by wind and fuelled by desiccated scrub and trees.
Nearly 12,000 homes and buildings burned hours after the blaze erupted, the California department of forestry and fire protection said. Thousands of additional structures are still threatened as firefighters, many from distant states, work to contain and suppress the flames.
The big rise in the number of missing is because of a detailed review of emergency calls and missing people reports, and the extension of the search for victims.
Officials acknowledge that the huge number of missing could easily contain duplicate names and unreliable spellings of names. The roster also probably includes many people who fled the blaze and do not realize they have been reported missing.