The President of the United States visited a town that has been decimated by wildfires as the death toll in California rose to 76.
But Donald Trump has been slammed for insensitivity as he stood among the charred remains of trees and houses and once again blamed the devastating fire on forest management.
Earlier this month, Trump caused outrage by threatening to withdraw funding to those fighting the fires in a tweet where he complained they were ‘costly’.
‘Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!’ he said two days into the disaster.
After visiting the scene on Saturday, the president described the remains of Paradise, where the majority of homes were incinerated by flames, as ‘sad’.
Almost every member of the population of 27,000 people living in Paradise – that saw some of the worst destruction when the fire started on November 8 – has fled, with only emergency services workers now seen out and about.
Mr Trump told reporters there: ‘They’re telling me this is not as bad as some areas; some areas are even beyond this, they’re just charred.’
He then persisted in his controversial claim that forest mismanagement is responsible for the tragedy, saying: ‘You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it’s a whole different story.
‘I was with the President of Finland he said it was a ‘forest nation’, he said ‘we’re a forest nation’.
‘And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and they don’t have any problem, and when they do it’s a very small problem.’
Before boarding Air Force One to California on Saturday morning, Trump said: ‘Everybody now knows that this is what we have to be doing…
‘It should’ve been done many years ago.’
Under Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget, the Forest Service and National Park Service suffered huge cuts.
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 previously called climate change a ‘hoax’ – although 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.
Authorities expect the death toll to grow still, and have warned evacuees that when they return they could come upon remains that officials missed.
As of latest figures releaseds, nearly 1,300 people remain ‘unaccounted for’.
Authorities said five more bodies were found on Saturday, including four in the town of Paradise and one in nearby Concow.
Meanwhile, firefighters continue to battle the blaze, which covers an area of about 600 square kilometres (149,000 acres).
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea pleaded with fire evacuees to check the list of people reported as unreachable by family and friends and to call in if they are safe.
Hundreds of people have already been located, but the overall number keeps growing because officials are adding names, including those reported as missing during the disaster’s chaotic early hours, he said.
‘It’s really very important for you to take a look at the list and call us if you’re on the list,’ he said.
Trump was joined by California’s outgoing and incoming governors, both Democrats who have traded sharp barbs with the Republican administration, for his tour on Saturday.
He also visited Southern California, where firefighters were making progress on a wildfire that tore through communities west of Los Angeles from Thousand Oaks to Malibu, killing three people.
The president pledged the full support of the federal government.
‘We’ve never seen anything like this in California, we’ve never seen anything like this yet,’ he said.
‘It’s like total devastation.’