Joe Biden branded President Donald Trump a "climate arsonist" on Monday for refusing to acknowledge global warming's role in deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, while Trump blamed lax forestry and declared, "I don't think science knows."
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Dozens of conflagrations have raged with unprecedented scope across some 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) in Oregon, California and Washington state since August, laying waste to several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 36 people.
The fires also have filled the region's air with harmful levels of smoke and soot, bathing skies in eerie tones of orange and sepia while adding to a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ten deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, the latest flashpoint in a larger summer outbreak of fires accompanied by catastrophic lightning storms, record-breaking heat waves and bouts of extreme winds.
Those incendiary conditions gave way over the weekend to cooler, moister weather and calmer winds, enabling weary firefighters to gain ground in efforts to outflank blazes that had burned largely unchecked last week.
Fire managers cautioned that the battle was hardly over. Thunderstorms forecast for later in the week could bring much-needed rain but also more lightning. Officials also braced for a rise in the death toll.
As disaster teams scoured the ruins of dwellings engulfed by flames amid chaotic evacuations last week, Oregon's emergency management authorities said they had yet to account for 22 people reported missing in the fires.
At least 25 people have perished in California wildfires since mid-August, and one fatality has been confirmed in Washington state. More than 6,200 homes and other structures have been lost, according to figures from all three states.
France 24's Alyssa Caverley reports on Trump's visit to California
Fires focus campaign on climate
Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee slammed by Republicans for not visiting disaster areas, spoke from his home state of Delaware on the threat of increasingly frequent weather extremes that scientists have pointed to as evidence that climate change is supercharging the fires.
Trump, who trails Biden in national polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election, met with firefighters and officials in California after Democrats blasted the Republican president for remaining mostly silent on the wildfires.
"I think this is more of a management situation," Trump answered, when asked by a reporter if climate change was a factor behind the fires. Without mentioning large wildfires that have raged elsewhere around the world in recent years – from southern Europe to Australia and Siberia – Trump asserted that other countries "don't have this problem."
"They have more explosive trees, meaning they catch fire much easier," he said. "But they don't have problems like this."
The president and his administration have long sought to pin the blame for large wildfires on state officials, saying fuel-choked forests and scrub need to be thinned, more firebreaks should be cut and flammable debris cleared from forest floors.
Trump said improved forest management was something that could be tackled quickly, whereas climate change would take more time and require international cooperation that he said was lacking.
"When you get into climate change, well is India going to change its ways? And is China going to change its ways? And Russia? Is Russia going to change its ways?" he said after landing in McLellan Park, California.
'I don't think science knows'
Trump has referred to climate change as a "hoax," and in 2017 pulled the United States out of the Paris accords laying out an international approach to global warming. Biden, the former vice president, has included climate change on his list of major crises facing the United States.
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