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Visiting California Fires, President Trump Denies Climate Change

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The wildfires in the West have burned down entire towns and upended the lives of millions of people. Many have lost homes; so many more just can't even go outside because the air is thick with ash and smoke. The fires have also forced President Trump to confront the realities of climate change, which he has, so far, refused to do. He was in California yesterday getting a briefing from state officials, and KQED'S Katie Orr was there. She joins us now from Sacramento. Katie, good morning. You were at this event with the president. The press was there and asking questions, and you actually asked him straight up about climate change, right?

KATIE ORR, BYLINE: I did. I asked the president what role he thinks climate change plays in these fires, and he insisted, as he has for years, that it's all about forest management, that years of letting the forests become overgrown and not well tended have turned them into tinderboxes. The president's argument was met with resistance from officials here on the ground, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, who urged the president to reconsider his stance in light of what the state has experienced in recent years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: The hottest August ever in the history of the state, the ferocity of these fires, the drought five-plus years, losing 163 million trees to that drought - something's happened to the plumbing of the world.

MARTIN: So there's Governor Newsom, wearing a mask, we should say - President Trump not wearing a mask. They're in this kind of intense conversation. How did the president respond to that?

ORR: He didn't seem to appreciate it. In one exchange, California's natural resources secretary, Wade Crowfoot, repeated the central role of climate change in these fires, and Trump pretty much dismissed him, as we can hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It'll start getting cooler.

WADE CROWFOOT: I wish...

TRUMP: You just watch.

CROWFOOT: I wish science agreed with you.

TRUMP: Well, I don't think science knows, actually.

ORR: And it's interesting - we're less than two months from the presidential election, but the president's comments were not really intended for voters in California, and that's for two reasons. First, everyone assumes California will vote Democratic in November. And here in the state, pretty much across the political spectrum, climate change and the science behind it are not in dispute by politicians or by voters. The president's message that California is itself to blame for the massive wildfires seems directed at his supporters in other states. And, by the way, we should mention, it's worth noting that Governor Newsom pointed out the federal government owns close to 60% of the forest land in California, while the state owns just 3%.

MARTIN: The implication there being that it's actually under President Trump's purview. So can you just give us the latest on the fires this morning? Where do they stand?

ORR: There are 28 major fires burning throughout the state right now with more than 16,000 firefighters working to contain them. And we have people who've gone through these fires and are waking up to a landscape marked by worry. My colleague in Fresno, Alex Hall, spoke with Lee Zarasuwa (ph) and her husband David (ph). They feared their house had burned down.

LEE ZARASUWA: What can you say? It's scary, especially the first couple of days. The fire was moving so quickly that, you know, we had no idea if the house would survive. So I think that's how everyone feels. And I know there are several houses on the next street, on Auberry Road, that were completely destroyed.

MARTIN: So many people dealing with so much loss. Katie Orr of KQED, we appreciate it. Thanks.

ORR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.