US President Donald Trump has said he would meet emergency services in California today as record fires that have killed 31 people smothered the US west coast in dense smog.
Officials warned of further fatalities, with swathes of land in California, Oregon and Washington still cut off by flames fueled by tinder-dry conditions, as former US vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, linked the fires to climate change.
The infernos have burnt through nearly 2 million hectares, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Trump plans to meet with the heads of California’s emergency services battling fires that have scorched more than 1.3 million hectares in the state this year — an annual record, with nearly four months of fire season still to come.
He has made little comment about the blazes in the past few weeks, but at a Nevada campaign event on Saturday he acknowledged the scope of the disaster.
“They never had anything like this,” Trump said. “Please remember the words, very simple: forest management.”
However, Biden, speaking earlier, said the causes were much broader: “The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life.”
“President Trump can try to deny that reality, but the facts are undeniable,” Biden said.
Worsening the sense of environmental catastrophe, all five of the world’s most air-polluted cities on Saturday were on the US west coast, according to IQAir, with dense smog and ash coating the atmosphere from Los Angeles up to Vancouver.
In Portland, thick, choking smoke blanketed the downtown area in the morning.
“It is as if I had smoked 100 cigarettes. I’ve never seen this, but we try to stay positive, as conditions are getting better,” said a 37-year-old man who gave his name as Jessie.
More than 20,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, with officials warning that a respite provided by the arrival of cooler weather could end today as warmer, drier conditions return.
Most of the fatalities have occurred in California and Oregon, with emergency services in the two states recording 30 deaths. Among them was a 13-year-old boy in Oregon, found in a vehicle with his dog in his lap.
The road was so hot it had melted the tires as he tried to flee.
Emergency official Andrew Phelps said that Oregon is “preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost.”
Preparations have been hampered by online claims that “extremists” are intentionally setting fires in Oregon, which have been debunked by the FBI.
Facebook said that it was removing the posts, some of which sought to link the blazes to antifa — a structureless movement that says it is dedicated to fighting fascism and is a favored target of conservatives.
“This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone wrote.
In Estacada, a rural Oregon town just kilometers from a fire, that was deserted earlier this week, some inhabitants returned from evacuation on Saturday and patrolled the streets with guns for fear of looting, a reporter said.
Others holed up indoors as thick acrid smoke hung in the air and fresh layers of ash from nearby blazes continued to blanket the streets.
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