Trump and Biden clash over US wildfires as campaign turns to climate change

Joe Biden branded President Donald Trump a "climate arsonist" on Monday for refusing to acknowledge global warming's role in deadly wildfires sweeping the western United States, while Trump blamed lax forestry and declared, "I don't think science knows".

Dozens of conflagrations have raged with unprecedented scope across some 4.5 million acres in Oregon, California and Washington state since August, laying waste to several small towns, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 36 people.

The fires also have filled the region's air with harmful levels of smoke and soot, bathing skies in eerie tones of orange and sepia while adding to a public health crisis already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ten deaths have been confirmed during the past week in Oregon, the latest flashpoint in a larger summer outbreak of fires accompanied by catastrophic lightning storms, record-breaking heat waves and bouts of extreme winds.

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Pictures of the week: September 13 - 19
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Pictures of the week: September 13 - 19
Sam Milford and father Chris, 72, from historic building conservation specialists WallWalkers, reinstall the weathercock at the top of Norwich Cathedral spire after it was re-gilded as part of the restoration work on the spire which stands at over 312ft high. (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)
Comedian and writer Dawn French (front left) and singer Beverley Knight (front centre), join (L-R) actor Anna Jane Casey, theatre director Caroline Jay Ranger, theatre owner Nica Burns, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra soloist Melanie Marshall outside the Lyric Theatre, central London, to make a two minute silent stand to raise further awareness of the need to reopen theatres across the UK without social distancing as soon as possible.
Piers Corbyn crosses the road in Westminster holding placards under his arm. Outspoken activist Piers Corbyn - brother of former labour Leader Jeremy Bernard Corbyn was seen campaigning opposite Downing Street, speaking to a crowd about his Covid-19 Conspiracy theory. He arrived in Westminster with several campaign placards after which he met with fellow activists in Whitehall. The astrophysicist has been addressing crowds throughout lockdown alleging Covid-19 outbreak was designed to control population. (Photo by Keith Mayhew / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A student help point is set up behind a screen at UCL (University College London) in London, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. In the UK, most universities do not begin their fall terms until late September or early October, and are readying big changes. At University College London, only a quarter of the buildings will be occupied at one time. Teaching spaces will incorporate social distancing and everyone must wear face-masks. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A 'funeral procession for music' during the press preview of One Night Records, the UK's first socially-distanced immersive live music venue event at London Bridge, in London.
Thousands of new colorful lanterns seen in London�s Chinatown which have replaced the traditional red ones during the campaign. The #LoveChinatown campaign is a joint venture between Chinatown London and London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA), as the vivid lanterns have been put up in the streets of Chinatown to welcome back visitors after the covid-19 pandemic and to show support for the people and businesses that live and work in the community. (Photo by Dave Rushen / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A volunteer helps with the annual lavender prune at the National Trust's Ham House in Richmond, Surrey. (Photo by Luciana Guerra/PA Images via Getty Images)
Hull's players embrace as they wait for a penalty during the English League Cup soccer match between Leeds United and Hull in Leeds, England, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Oli Scarf/Pool via AP)
People enjoying the warm weather on Bournemouth beach at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C.
Two people enjoying the sunny weather at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C.
A young woman takes a picture whilst feeding a parakeet from her hand as she enjoys the autumn sunshine in St James's Park London, at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C.
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17: An engineer abseils from Lambeth Bridge as he works on the lighting system for the "Illuminated River" public art commission that will eventually see 14 bridges on the river Thames lit up at night, on September 17, 2020 in London, England. A number of London's bridges have recently either needed emergency repairs, or have been closed to the public entirely due to fears that they are structurally unsafe. In late August, Tower Bridge was closed for 48 hours after it suffered "technical issues" resulting in the iconic bridge remaining in the upright position, and Hammersmith Bridge has been closed to the public since April 2019 as it undergoes major structural repair. Elsewhere along the river, Vauxhall Bridge and London Bridge are closed to car traffic as urgent repair work takes place. Campaign groups have called for the repairs to be carried out in full and at speed, as roads and commutes become harder as people return to work after the COVID-19 lockdown. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
A protester from Extinction Rebellion walks between two trees in Parliament Square in Central London, UK on September 16, 2020. This is Day 15 of Extinction Rebellion's protest demanding the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (CEE) is passed into law by the government. The Bill will reduce the UK carbon emissions and hold a national citizens assembly on the crisis. (Photo by Claire Doherty/Sipa USA)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: Tom Curran of England hits runs watched on by Alex Carey of Australia during the 3rd Royal London One Day International Series match between England and Australia at Emirates Old Trafford on September 16, 2020 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images for ECB)
Embargoed to 0001 Tuesday September 15 File photo dated 18/08/20 of Samantha Archetti, Collections Care Technician, cleaning a Hurricane ahead of the reopening of the Battle of Britain exhibition at IWM Duxford, which marks 80 years since the German Luftwaffe began its air attacks at the start of the Battle of Britain. Issue date: Tuesday September 15, 2020. The battle was a major air campaign fought in the skies over the UK in 1940 and was the first battle in history fought entirely in the air. Though the battle took place between July and October 1940, September 15 saw the British Royal Air Force (RAF) gain a decisive victory over the Luftwaffe in what was Nazi Germany�s largest daylight attack. A variety of tributes and commemorations will take place across the UK to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain despite limitations caused by the coronavirus crisis. See PA story MEMORIAL Battle. Photo credit should read: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Pro EU protesters stand near Parliament in London, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. Boris Johnson is facing the possibility of a Tory rebellion and major damage to his chances of a trade deal with the EU unless he removes controversial parts of the internal Bill which is in the House of Commons for its second reading Monday. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A woman enjoying the sunny weather on the pier at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C.
LONDON, Sept. 14, 2020 -- People walk on Tower Bridge in London, Britain, on Sept. 14, 2020. In order to curb the rise in coronavirus cases, tough new limits on social gatherings came into force in Britain on Monday, meaning that in most regions, it is now illegal for groups of more than six to meet up. The "rule of six" kicked off at midnight across England, Wales and Scotland in the latest push to curb the recent surge in coronavirus infections. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Tim Ireland via Getty Images)
Luna Eddy, 2, plays in the water feature, in Centenary Square, Birmingham, England, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, as high temperatures were expected in some parts of the UK. (Jacob King/PA via AP)
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange take part in a protest outside the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in London, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The London court hearing on Assange's extradition from Britain to the United States resumed Monday after a COVID-19 test on one of the participating lawyers came back negative, WikiLeaks said Friday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
A protester speaks through a megaphone at the Parliament Square during the demonstration. They were protesting about �mask being useless against Covid-19� & the government forcing �fake rules and laws� on people during the pandemic. They were also against main stream media who �tell lies�. (Photo by Dave Rushen / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
The sun rises behind the London Eye ferris wheel, London, at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C.
EMBARGOED TO 0001 MONDAY SEPTEMBER 14 File photo dated 21/03/20 of a closed pub in New Cross, south London. Thousands of pubs across the UK could be forced to call time as they face a looming �800 million business rates bill, a trade association has said.
Australia's Marnus Labuschagne walks off the field after being dismissed by England's Chris Woakes during the second ODI cricket match between England and Australia, at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (Shaun Botterill/Pool via AP)
EDITORIAL USE ONLY Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber perform songs by Schubert and Berg at a recital to launch the new season at Wigmore Hall as it becomes the first major UK music venue to welcome back live audiences, London.
A young woman takes a picture whilst feeding a parakeet from her hand as she enjoys the autumn sunshine in St James's Park London, at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C.
Kool Moe Dee ridden by Pat Dobbs (centre) wins the visitbath.co.uk Nursery at Bath Racecourse.
The sun rises behind the skyscrapers of the City of London financial district, at the start of a week in which the UK is expected to bask in temperatures of more than 30C. (Photo by Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images)
A group of people walk in Victoria Gardens, in London, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. From Monday, social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England — both indoors and outdoors — and Boris Johnson hinted that such restrictions will potentially remain in place until or through Christmas. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Tottenham's manager Jose Mourinho gives instructions to his players during the English Premier League soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (Adam Davy/Pool via AP)
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Those incendiary conditions gave way over the weekend to cooler, moister weather and calmer winds, enabling weary firefighters to gain ground in efforts to outflank blazes that had burned largely unchecked last week.

Fire managers cautioned that the battle was hardly over. Thunderstorms forecast for later in the week could bring much-needed rain but also more lightning. Officials also braced for a rise in the death toll.

As disaster teams scoured the ruins of dwellings engulfed by flames amid chaotic evacuations last week, Oregon's emergency management authorities said they had yet to account for 22 people reported missing in the fires.

At least 25 people have perished in California wildfires since mid-August, and one fatality has been confirmed in Washington state. More than 6,200 homes and other structures have been lost, according to figures from all three states.

FIRES FOCUS CAMPAIGN ON CLIMATE

Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee slammed by Republicans for not visiting disaster areas, spoke from his home state of Delaware on the threat of increasingly frequent weather extremes that scientists have pointed to as evidence that climate change is supercharging the fires.

Trump, who trails Biden in national polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election, met with firefighters and officials in California after Democrats blasted the Republican president for remaining mostly silent on the wildfires.

"I think this is more of a management situation," Trump answered, when asked by a reporter if climate change was a factor behind the fires. Without mentioning large wildfires that have raged elsewhere around the world in recent years - from southern Europe to Australia and Siberia - Trump asserted that other countries "don't have this problem."

"They have more explosive trees, meaning they catch fire much easier," he said. "But they don't have problems like this."

The president and his administration have long sought to pin the blame for large wildfires on state officials, saying fuel-choked forests and scrub need to be thinned, more firebreaks should be cut and flammable debris cleared from forest floors.

Trump said improved forest management was something that could be tackled quickly, whereas climate change would take more time and require international cooperation that he said was lacking.

"When you get into climate change, well is India going to change its ways? And is China going to change its ways? And Russia? Is Russia going to change its ways?" he said after landing in McLellan Park, California.

'I DON'T THINK SCIENCE KNOWS'

Trump has referred to climate change as a "hoax", and in 2017 pulled the United States out of the Paris accords laying out an international approach to global warming. Biden, the former vice president, has included climate change on his list of major crises facing the United States.

Calling Trump a "climate arsonist," Biden said: "If we have four more years of Trump's climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned by wildfires? How many suburban neighbourhoods will have been flooded out?"

California Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged more needs to be done to better manage forests to reduce fire risks, citing more than a century of aggressive fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up.

But he countered that global warming was nevertheless a driving factor in newly extreme wildfire behaviour, and he reminded Trump that 57% of forest land in California is under federal ownership.

"We come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in and observed evidence is self-evident: that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this," the Democratic governor said during a meeting with the president.

Trump, who has authorised federal disaster aid for both California and Oregon, questioned that science.

"It'll start getting cooler, you just watch," he said. "I don't think science knows."

Tens of thousands of displaced residents across the Pacific Northwest continued to adjust to life as evacuees. Around the devastated southwestern Oregon towns of Phoenix and Talent, some people set up food stations in parking lots. Others defied evacuation orders to guard their own homes from looters.

Reinforcing local law enforcement resources strained by the disaster, Oregon is deploying as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to fire-stricken communities.

Two men were arrested in Oregon, one on Friday and another on Monday, on arson charges stemming from a handful of relatively small fires.

But police have cautioned against fake social media reports blaming wildfires on left-wing anti-fascists or right-wing Proud Boy activists.

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