Charred trees burned by the Holy Fire in California (RINGO CHIU)
Los Angeles (AFP) – Senior members of President Donald Trump’s administration visited California Monday as the toll rose to at least nine dead in blazes that have cut a catastrophic swathe through the most populous US state.
Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes over the past month, with more than a dozen fires still threatening land and property from south of Los Angeles up north to the border with Oregon.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — wrapping up a two-day tour of the Carr Fire’s path to the west of Redding in northern California — met rescuers alongside Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Over the weekend, firefighters made progress on the inferno, which has destroyed more than 1,000 homes and other property, according to federal and local government data.
But the 206,816-acre (83,695-hectare) blaze is still less than two-thirds contained after killing eight people and prompting the evacuation of 40,000.
“Thanks to all #firefighters keeping the communities of Northern #California safe! The #CarrFire is devastating our #publiclands and it’s time we properly manage our forests,” Zinke tweeted.
He and Perdue were introduced to “smokejumpers” — elite firefighters who parachute into remote areas, risking their lives to perform the initial attacks on wildfires.
The temperatures have remained in double digits in recent days but emergency workers say they are bracing for hotter weather, dry air and gusty winds over the coming days.
– Firefighter killed –
“Important to remember that not only are they battling the flames, but they often are affected personally as well. We are grateful for their service and bravery,” Perdue tweeted after addressing emergency workers from various agencies at a lunch.
Authorities announced Monday that the Mendocino Complex wildfire — California’s largest in history, with 349,890 acres burned — has left a firefighter dead.
“The Mendocino Complex Unified Incident Commanders from Cal Fire, and the United States Forest Service are deeply saddened to report the death of a firefighter on the Mendocino Complex,” a statement said, without providing further details.
The blaze is made up of the Ranch and River fires, which were respectively 59 percent and 100 percent contained by Monday evening, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
Zinke’s visit with Perdue came days after Trump suggested that California’s environmental policies had deprived firefighters of water and left too many trees that could fuel fires.
Some activists have acknowledged that many of the state’s forests are too dense and require more aggressive management, but Cal Fire officials have stated they have enough water.
Other experts have added that California’s most destructive blazes have started in shrublands, not thick forests, and that the devastating fire season has been lengthened by climate change.
Zinke angered activists by downplaying the importance of global warming in wildfire management as he began his California visit on Sunday.
“I’ve heard the climate change argument back and forth,” he said in an interview with television station KCRA 3.
“This has nothing to do with climate change. This has to do with active forest management.”
– ‘Inaccessible terrain’ –
Fourteen of California’s 20 largest wildfires have started since 2003 — a period boasting some of the hottest, driest years on record in the US.
Zinke focused instead on environmentalists, accusing them of delaying forest management projects involving the removal of trees, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper.
Congress passed a measure in March as part of the omnibus spending bill providing almost $2 billion for containing wildfires in fiscal year 2018, while in California legislators have made $200 million available.
Zinke has said that he and Perdue will ask Congress to streamline procedures for clearing out dead and dying trees.
Authorities have charged a 51-year-old man, Forrest Gordon Clark, with multiple arson-related charges in connection with the 22,986-acre Holy Fire in Orange County, to the southeast of Los Angeles.
Evacuation orders remained in place for thousands of people living in the path of the blaze as the flames edged toward a retirement community between the Santa Ana Mountains and an interstate highway.
The wildfire prompted voluntary evacuations for 1,300 units in the Trilogy Glen Ivy community, while some of the area’s affected districts have delayed the return to school until next week.
Plumes of dark gray smoke could be seen billowing from behind a nearby hillside as containment for the Holy Fire rose to 59 percent.
Helicopters and airplanes continued to drop fire retardant on flames burning in otherwise inaccessible terrain as the fire entered its eighth day.
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