PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — Some who fled a Northern California town leveled by the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century waved American flags to welcome President Donald Trump, who walked among the scorched ruins Saturday, but others said they were focused on packing up what little they had left and getting to their next temporary home.
California’s outgoing and incoming governors joined Trump as he surveyed the devastation in the town of Paradise, population 27,000, and visited a firefighting command center. Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom had welcomed Trump’s visit, declaring it’s time “to pull together for the people of California.”
The tour came as firefighters raced to get ahead of strong winds expected overnight and authorities struggled to locate 1,011 people who were unaccounted for. Authorities stressed that not all on the list are believed missing, but the death toll has risen daily, standing at 71.
Those who lost their homes or were looking for loved ones were also busy — some trying to pack up at a makeshift camp next to a Walmart in the city of Chico. No one there appeared to be paying close attention to Trump’s visit, with evacuees saying they were told to leave by Sunday.
Maggie Missere-Crowder said if Trump came to the Walmart, she would shake his hand, but she otherwise needed to focus on getting her tent and plastic storage boxes with food and other items into her pickup truck.
Missere-Crowder, 61, and her husband fled their home in Magalia, a community near Paradise that also was devastated, and planned to go to a shelter in Yuba City, about an hour’s drive from the Walmart.
She said she was angry about Trump’s tweet two days after the disaster blaming forest mismanagement for the fire, a sentiment he repeated just before his visit and has stirred resentment among survivors.
“Like we’ve done it on purpose. It’s like a slap in the face,” Missere-Crowder said.
Still, she said that if she met him, she would say, “Think about what you’re saying, because it takes away from all the good stuff you’re doing.”
The fire zone in Northern California is to some extent Trump country. He beat Hillary Clinton by 4 percentage points in Butte County in 2016. That was on display as people gathered on street corners with Trump flags to greet his motorcade.
June Busalacchi, 57, and her husband, Steve, 56, came to a Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance center at the Chico Mall to see if some friends they haven’t heard from were there. The Trump voters also hoped the president would show up.
“He’s going to get these guys, and no pun intended, get a fire under them,” he said, referring to state officials in California. “They need to protect people, not just in big cities.”
Asked about Trump’s insistence that forest management was to blame for the blaze, Steve Busalacchi said comments like that are how you motivate people to address problems.
Ron Waterbury, who lost his home in Paradise, watched news about Trump’s visit on a TV set outside a Red Cross shelter in Chico.
“I think his visiting here is just for show,” he said. “I think he was talked into coming here to make himself look better than what he is.”
The blaze that started Nov. 8 destroyed more than 9,800 homes. Thousands of personnel were battling the blaze that covered about 230 square miles (600 square kilometers) and was halfway contained, officials said.
Firefighters were racing against time with winds up to 40 mph and low humidity expected Saturday night into Sunday. Rain was forecast for midweek, which could help firefighters but also complicate the challenging search for remains.
The number of people unaccounted for has grown to more than 1,000. But Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea acknowledged that the list was “dynamic” and could easily contain duplicate names and unreliable spellings of names.
The roster probably includes some who fled the blaze and do not realize they have been reported missing, he said.
“We are still receiving calls. We’re still reviewing emails,” Honea said Friday. “This is a massive undertaking. We have hundreds and hundreds of people working on this.”
Michelle Mack Couch, 49, lost the home she was renting in Paradise and helped patients escape through a wall of flames as an employee at a skilled nursing facility.
“Let’s hope he gets us some help,” the Trump voter said at a FEMA assistance center, where she was trying to get a walker for her 72-year-old mom.
But as far as watching the president’s visit, she said wryly, “We don’t have a TV anymore.”
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