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Trump, Democrats trade blame as U.S. West Coast wildfires death toll tops 35

Democrats blame climate change for wildfires ravaging the U.S. West Coast, but President Donald Trump pointed the finger at alleged poor forest management by states.

Biden calls Trump a 'climate arsonist' as president blames state forest management

A worker looks on in the aftermath of a wildfire in Detroit, Ore., on Monday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

With crews battling wildfires that have killed at least 35 people, destroyed neighbourhoods and enveloped the U.S. West Coast in smoke, another fight has emerged: leaders in the Democratic-led states and President Donald Trump clashed over the role of climate change as he visited California on Monday.

California, Oregon and Washington state have seen historic wildfires that have burned faster and farther than ever before. Numerous studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in the U.S. to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas.

The Democratic governors say the fires are a consequence of climate change, while Trump has blamed poor forest management for the flames that have raced through state and federal land in the region and made the air in places like Portland, Ore., Seattle and San Francisco some of the worst in the world.

Scientists say the wildfires are all but inevitable but that the main drivers are plants and trees drying out due to climate change and more people living closer to areas that burn. Forest thinning and controlled burns have proven challenging to implement on the scale needed to combat those threats.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state and federal officials briefed Trump about the fires during a stop near Sacramento, where the president doubled down on mostly blaming forest management. State Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot said he wished the science agreed with the president, to which Trump countered, "I don't think science knows, actually."

WATCH | Trump clashes with California officials on climate change:

U.S. President Donald Trump clashed with California state officials on whether climate change or forest management was to blame for the wildfires raging in the U.S. West during a briefing on the crisis on Monday. 0:48

The governors have been blunt. Newsom toured a ghostlike landscape destroyed by flames Friday and called out the "ideological BS" of those who deny the danger.

"The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California, observe it with your own eyes," he said.

He noted that just in the last month, California had its hottest August, with world-record-setting heat in Death Valley. It had 14,000 dry lightning strikes that set off hundreds of fires, some that combined into creating five of the 10 largest fires in the state's recorded history. And it had back-to-back heat waves.

Trump's Democratic presidential challenger, Joe Biden, in his own speech on Monday lashed at Trump, questioning his leadership and calling him a "climate arsonist."

"This is another crisis, another crisis he won't take responsibility for," Biden said. He said that if voters give "a climate denier" another four years in the White House, "why would we be surprised that we have more of America ablaze?"   

It isn't clear if global warming caused the dry, windy conditions that have fed the fires in the Pacific Northwest, but a warmer world can increase the likelihood of extreme events and contribute to their severity, said Greg Jones, a professor and research climatologist at Linfield University in McMinnville, Ore.

Warnings of low moisture and strong winds could fan the flames in hard-hit southern Oregon to Northern California and last through Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes as the fast-moving flames turned neighbourhoods to nothing but charred rubble and burned-out cars.

At least 10 people have been killed in Oregon. Officials have said more people are missing, and the number of fatalities is likely to rise, though they have not said how high the toll could go as they search. In California, 24 people have died, and one person was killed in Washington state.

WATCH | Oregon town covered in red flame retardant:

Drone video recorded on Sunday in Oregon showed entire neighbourhoods in the fire-ravaged town of Talent covered by the brightly coloured retardant in the wake of the Almeda Fire. 1:01

Firefighter Steve McAdoo, who has run from one blaze to another in Oregon for six days, said his neighbours in rural areas outside Portland should clear trees near their homes because a week like they just survived could happen again.

"I would think the way the climate is changing, this may not be the last time," he said.

In the small southern Oregon town of Talent, Dave Monroe came back to his burned home, partly hoping he'd find his three cats.

"We thought we'd get out of this summer with no fires," he said. "There is something going on, that's for sure, man. Every summer we're burning up."

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