The death toll from wildfires choking the west coast of the US continued to rise on Sunday as authorities feared more bodies were likely to be found in the charred ruins of towns across several states, and politicians lambasted Donald Trump for his response to the escalating crisis.
In Oregon, where emergency managers warned the public to expect “a mass fatality incident”, 40,000 fled their homes, more than half a million were under some level of evacuation order, flames scorched more than a million acres and the state fire marshal was replaced.
At least 33 people are known to have died since the start of the outbreak in mid-August, two-thirds in California and 10 in Oregon, with dozens more missing. Firefighters continued to battle almost 100 separate wildfires, including in Washington state, where a child was killed, and in Idaho and Montana.
The White House announced that Trump would visit California on Monday for “a briefing”, a move that drew strong criticism from Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles.
“He’s going to come out here and probably tell us ‘I’m going to send you rakes’ instead of more help,” Garcetti told CNN’s State of the Union, referring to the president’s claims that wildfires in the state are caused by poor forestry management and not fuelled by the climate crisis.
Trump issued a disaster declaration in August but has been largely quiet about the wildfires since. At a rally in Nevada on Saturday night, he said: “I spoke to the folks in Oregon, Washington … they’ve never had anything like this. But, you know, it is about forest management … and other things, but forest management.”
The Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, told ABC’s This Week Trump’s claims about “raking the forest” were “just a big and devastating lie”.
Some observers say the president has deliberately ignored the crisis because it is playing out in Democratic-controlled states.
“We need leadership that is equal across this country instead of being partisan and divisive,” Garcetti said. “We need actual help, material help not based on our party affiliation and not how we voted.”
The Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and the governors of California, Oregon and Washington – all Democrats – have said the fires are a consequence of global heating.
“This is climate change and this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand,” Garcetti said. “This administration [is] the last vestiges of the flat-earth society of this generation.”
On ABC, Washington governor Jay Inslee said: “The only moisture in eastern Washington was the tears of people who have lost their homes, and mingling with the ashes. And now we have a blowtorch over our states in the west, which is climate change.”
Inslee, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform devoted to combating the climate crisis, urged people in his state to “get out there and vote against any politician like Donald Trump who has downplayed climate change”.
Biden has also been critical.
“We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the west today,” he said.
In California, 28 active large fires have burned 4,375sq miles and 16,000 firefighters are trying to suppress the flames, said Cal Fire assistant deputy director Daniel Berlant.
Smoke also poses a health concern. With air contamination at historic highs, residents who chose not to evacuate stuffed towels under doors to keep smoke out. Others wore N95 respirator masks.
Fires along Oregon’s Cascade mountain range grew on Saturday, but at a slower rate than earlier in the week, when strong easterly winds acted like a bellows, pushing two large fires – at Beachie Creek and Riverside – towards each other and population centres including the south-eastern suburbs of Portland.
There was some good news: the same smoke that painted California skies orange also helped crews corral the blaze by blocking the sun, reducing temperatures and raising humidity, officials said.
Smoke created cooler conditions in Oregon, too, but it was also blamed for making the dirtiest air in at least 35 years in some places. The air quality index reading on Saturday morning in Salem, the state capital, was 512. The scale normally goes from zero to 500.
“Our firefighters in Oregon are feeling more optimistic as the weather has calmed in the last couple of days,” Jim Gersbach, a spokesman for the Oregon department of forestry, said, quoted in the Washington Post.
Some communities resembled the bombed-out cities of Europe after the second world war, buildings reduced to charred rubble atop blackened earth. If residents did not manage to flee as the flames closed in, they perished.
In Paradise, northern California, where wildfires claimed 85 lives almost two years ago, smoke from the quarter-million acre and deadly North Complex fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills blanketed the city, which was partially evacuated last week.
“It triggers a lot of feelings from before,” Patti Lloyd, who lost her home in the 2018 blaze, told the Guardian.
The situation stirred painful memories in others. “A lot of people are hurting. I think people thought the fires were behind us,” said Barbara Manson, who lost her store in 2018.
Oregon’s state fire marshal Jim Walker resigned on Saturday after being placed on administrative leave. Sources said police superintendent Travis Hampton lost confidence in Walker’s handling of the emergency.
Andrew Phelps, Oregon’s director of emergency management, warned that officials were preparing for “a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures that have been lost”.