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Handfuls of people who fled the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century clustered around TV sets at evacuation centers Saturday to watch President Donald Trump survey what remained of their Northern California community.
But for the most part, survivors, some who had barely escaped and no longer had homes, were too busy packing up what little they had left or seeking help to pay much attention to the president’s visit.
Michelle Mack Couch, 49, waited in line to get into a Federal Emergency Management Agency center in the city of Chico. She needed a walker for her elderly mother and tags for her car.
“Let’s hope he gets us some help,” said Couch, who voted for Trump and whose house was among more than 9,800 that burned down last week.
But as far as taking time out to watch the president, she said wryly, “We don’t have a TV anymore.”
California’s outgoing and incoming governors joined Trump as he surveyed the devastation in the town of Paradise, population 27,000, and visited a nearby firefighting command center. Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom welcomed Trump’s visit, declaring it’s time “to pull together for the people of California.”
The tour came as firefighters raced to get ahead of strong winds expected overnight and authorities struggled to locate 1,011 people who were unaccounted for. Authorities stressed that not all on the list are believed missing, but the death toll from the Camp Fire has risen daily, standing at 71.
The fire zone in Northern California is to some extent Trump country. He beat Hillary Clinton by 4 percentage points in Butte County in 2016. That enthusiasm was on display as dozens of people cheered and waved flags as his motorcade went by.
But elsewhere, others were searching for friends. At an unofficial encampment next to a Walmart in Chico, many were packing up to find another temporary place to sleep after being told to leave by Sunday.
That included Maggie Missere-Crowder, who said she was focused on getting her tent and boxes of food into her pickup truck.
Missere-Crowder, 61, and her husband had fled their home in Magalia, a community near Paradise that also was devastated, and now planned to go to a shelter in Yuba City, about an hour’s drive from the Walmart.
She said she was angry about Trump’s tweet last week blaming forest mismanagement for the Nov. 8 fire, a sentiment he evoked in his visit and has stirred resentment among survivors.
“Like we’ve done it on purpose. It’s like a slap in the face,” Missere-Crowder said.
Still, she said that if she met him, she would say, “Think about what you’re saying, because it takes away from all the good stuff you’re doing.”
Al Coppa, who lost two homes and doesn’t know the fate of a third in Magalia, was among a handful of people watching news about Trump’s visit on a TV outside a Red Cross shelter in Chico.
He said he hopes the attention will speed up recovery for wildfire victims.
“I hope that only good comes out of it. Good for the people that have been devastated by this. It’s just such a horrible thing. I couldn’t believe how bad it was,” said Coppa, who has been living in hotels.
Trump also was visiting Southern California, where firefighters were making progress on a wildfire that tore through communities west of Los Angeles from Thousand Oaks to Malibu, killing three people.
In Northern California, thousands of personnel battled the flames spanning about 230 square miles (600 square kilometers), officials said. It was halfway contained.
Firefighters were racing against time with winds up to 40 mph and low humidity expected Saturday night into Sunday. Rain was forecast for midweek, which could help firefighters but also complicate the search for remains.
The number of people unaccounted for has grown to more than 1,000. But Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea acknowledged that the list was “dynamic” and could easily contain duplicate names and unreliable spellings.
The roster probably includes some who fled the blaze and do not realize they have been reported missing, he said.
“We are still receiving calls. We’re still reviewing emails,” Honea said Friday. “This is a massive undertaking. We have hundreds and hundreds of people working on this.”