OAKLAND — California and the West have been on fire, but President Donald Trump went more than three weeks without mentioning it.
During that time, Trump tweeted, golfed, held news conferences and appeared at campaign rallies. He visited Louisiana in late August after Hurricane Laura killed 27 people, saying he wanted “to support the great people of Louisiana, it’s been a tremendous state for me.”
But as wildfires ravaged Western states with a similar number of deaths, Trump waited until Friday night to reference it publicly after coming under growing criticism for his silence.
“THANK YOU to the 28,000+ Firefighters and other First Responders who are battling wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington,” he wrote. “I have approved 37 Stafford Act Declarations, including Fire Management Grants to support their brave work. We are with them all the way!”
The Trump administration has behind the scenes approved emergency declarations and pledged federal relief to states trying to contain fast-moving fires. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he spoke to Trump for 30 minutes Thursday, a conversation that included specifics about the North Complex Fire where 10 people were found dead this week.
But West Coast residents wondered why he didn’t use his presidential bullhorn to summon support from Americans — except once to blame the state for not taking care of its forests.
Last month, when California was under siege by hundreds of lightning-caused fires, Trump held up the state as an example of liberal excess in a speech to Pennsylvania rallygoers. “I see again the forest fires are starting,” he told supporters. “I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.”
Across the West, 42 large fires have put more than 28,000 firefighters and support personnel on the front lines to contain damage as 4.5 million acres have burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. A dry winter, record heat, lightning strikes and high winds have combined to create perfect conditions for fire to spread.
While California has drawn the most attention in recent years, Oregon and Washington this month have also suffered from a staggering scale of devastation that has put entire towns in danger as tens of thousands were ordered to evacuate. In southern Oregon, about 25 miles north of the California border, entire blocks of homes were razed by fire in the towns of Phoenix and Talent. In eastern Washington, the local sheriff said wildfires left Malden as a “moonscape,” according to the New York Times.
In California, the North Complex Fire has been raging for weeks and erupted this month when winds swept through Northern California. So far, 10 people have died and others remain missing in Butte County, the same region where the town of Paradise was decimated in late 2018 in the state’s deadliest fire.
Further south, about 200 people had to be airlifted by National Guard helicopters over Labor Day weekend from a Sierra Nevada region near Yosemite National Park — and some were told their best chance for survival was to jump in the nearby reservoir.
Meanwhile, West Coast residents hundreds of miles away choked under orange skies, blankets of thick smoke and raining ash, as the National Weather Service warned of unhealthy breathing conditions for millions.
“Still no word from Trump, the self-proclaimed savior of the suburbs,” tweeted liberal activist Amy Siskind, referencing threatened and destroyed neighborhoods in Oregon earlier this week. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern blamed it on the Electoral College, which “allows — indeed, encourages — Trump to ignore California’s wildfire crisis because he knows he cannot win the state.”
On Thursday, the White House approved Oregon’s request for an emergency declaration in response — but only after 1 in 8 Oregonians were advised to flee their homes as Gov. Kate Brown said September firestorms are likely to be the deadliest in Oregon history.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Thursday on Twitter, “The images coming out of California, Oregon, Washington, and other Western states are truly horrifying. If you’re in an impacted area, please heed the warnings from your local authorities and stay safe. Jill and I are keeping you all in our prayers.”
Vice President Mike Pence mentioned on Fox News Thursday that his daughter and son-in-law live in California — and that he wanted to assure firefighters, business and homeowners that they’ll have the federal government’s support.
Trump, however, kept his fire discussions private. Newsom gave further details during a visit to the North Complex Fire region on Friday. He said the Trump administration issued a major disaster declaration last month that has helped provide business and local government support, as well as emergency relief to evacuees and victims.
“We walked through the current status report on the active fires the larger complexes,” Newsom said. “We actually specifically talked about Butte County and some of the recovery efforts from the campfire. And he reinforced his commitment to our effort, and we were grateful.’’
The Trump administration last month also reached a deal with Newsom to treat 500,000 wooded acres a year in California forestland — the majority of which the federal government is responsible for.
If anything, it has seemed like a missed opportunity for Trump to appear presidential during a fall campaign stretch in which voters are questioning such credentials — particularly after his handling of coronavirus, which has killed more than 190,000 Americans.
“As horrible as it sounds, natural disasters are almost always a positive political opportunity,’’ said Sean Walsh, former communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson and a Bush and Reagan White House insider. “At a minimum, you can project empathy — people are suffering and people care when you care about them,’’ a message that would resonate in a huge swath of the West this week, not only in California but also Oregon and Washington.
In addition, the president has at his disposal huge federal resources, Walsh noted, “and the mere fact of deploying those resources is another positive note you send to people” where there’s a disaster.
Walsh suggested that the reality for the White House may be as basic as “out of sight, out of mind.’’ He noted that Beltway media in recent weeks have been fixated on major revelations on the White House, first in the Atlantic last week about Trump reportedly disparaging military members in private, then with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” with new details about what the president knew when about coronavirus.