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Trump blames 'gross mismanagement' as wildfires leave trail of death, destruction in California

Smoke from the Woolsey Fire looms above Highway 101 in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Friday morning, Nov. 9, 2018. Firefighters in opposite ends of California fought back fast-moving blazes on Friday morning as wildfires raged out of control near major cities, forced tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes and damaged hundreds of buildings. (Jenna Schoenefeld/The New York Times)

Hours after officials announced grim new statistics in California's Camp Fire - nine dead, more than 6,700 structures incinerated - President Donald Trump blamed poor forest management for the destruction and threatened to pull federal funding.

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor," Trump tweeted Saturday morning. "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!"

It was the first time Trump has spoken publicly about the Camp blaze, but the president's assertions of mismanagement are a frequent fiery refrain, claims that are regularly disputed.

In August, with fires growing to historic sizes in California, Trump tweeted that the state is "foolishly" diverting "vast amounts of water from the North," blaming bad environmental laws for the summer's deadly fires.

California fire officials shot back at the president's claims, saying the real cause was climate change.

The latest tweet came as residents in Butte County, about 90 miles north of state capital Sacramento, described fleeing a catastrophic fire that began on Thursday grew with incredible speed and turned a sunny day into an end-of-days scene of flames, smoke, sparks and wide destruction.

Named Camp Fire for a nearby creek, the blaze is not yet done. It had burned at least 90,000 acres, more than 140 square miles, and was only 20 percent contained by Saturday morning, causing officials to declare a state of emergency for a fire likely to worsen over the weekend.

Officials warned that "red flag" conditions would persist on and off through Monday, hot, dry and windy weather that makes the land ripe for a fire's spread.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters at a news conference Friday evening that officials had found nine people who had been killed by the fire: Four were found dead in their cars in Paradise, down from the five officials had spoken about earlier; three outside of houses; and two others, one inside a home, and another near a car.

It had injured an undisclosed number of residents as well as three firefighters. And Honea's deputies were still looking into some 35 reports of missing people.

"This event was the worst-case scenario," Honea said. "It's the event that we have feared for a long time."

Hundreds of miles south in Ventura County, still reeling from a mass shooting that left 12 people dead, more wildfires had broken out, causing the evacuation of 100,000 people in Thousand Oaks, Malibu and other areas. The Woolsey Fire had burned some 35,000 acres, officials said, while the nearby Hill Fire had burned through 6,000.

But of all the areas struck by fires in the state so far, Paradise had fared the worst. Its main commercial street transformed into a smoking runway of destruction. Officials said that 6,453 homes and 260 businesses had been destroyed, making the fire the most destructive in California's history. The previous record holder, the Tubbs Fire in the state's wine country, was just one year ago.

Marc Kessler, 55, a science teacher at a public middle school in Paradise, said the sky turned black soon after he arrived at work.

"It was raining black pieces of soot, coming down like a black snowstorm and starting fires everywhere," he said in an interview. "Within minutes, the town was engulfed."

Teachers were told by emergency workers to forgo seat-belt laws as they piled 200 or so students into their personal vehicles. Bus drivers drove through flames to help out, he said. One of his students pointed out what they thought was the moon in the darkened sky.

"I said, 'That's not the moon. That's the sun,' " he recalled, his voice cracking. "There were times when you couldn't see though the smoke."

The mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, said most of the buildings in her town of 26,000 had been destroyed.

"There are very few homes still standing, and we've been in multiple different neighborhoods this afternoon," Jones told CNN. "There's really not much left."

Trump has loudly and consistently blamed intensifying wildfires on poor resource management by California officials. Twice in October, Trump threatened to withhold federal wildfire funds from California because of what he alleged was poor forest management policy, The Washington Post reported.

Universally, California officials' response has been that the real culprit behind intensifying wildfires is climate change.

As The Washington Post's Angela Fritz wrote in July, a hotter-than-average summer and dry winter have "led to tinder-dry vegetation," in areas scorched by the Carr fire during Redding, California's hottest July on record. "The energy release component, or how much fuel is available for the fire, is at the highest it has been around Redding since at least 1979," Fritz wrote.

But for the people of Paradise, that debate wasn't immediately as important as simply getting out of the path of the Campfire.

Paradise resident Brynn Chatfield posted a terrifying video as she and her family escaped the fire, flames a few feet from their vehicle and embers shooting across their path.

"Heavenly father, please help us," she prayed in the video. "Please help us to be safe."

The video concluded as the vehicle emerged from the flames into a normal day. Chatfield later posted the video, which has since been seen nearly 2 million times.

"My hometown of Paradise is on fire," she wrote. "My family is evacuated and safe. Not all my friends are safe."

This article was written by Cleve Wootson, Lindsey Bever, Joel Achenbach and Eli Rosenberg, reporters for The Washington Post.

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