PARADISE: Even the bright lights on Donald Trump’s motorcade grew dim as “the Beast” limousine and the rest of the presidential procession slid into the haze covering the fiery inferno of northern California.
All along the route to the town of Paradise stretched blackened fields. Many of the locals, often holding children, watched the scene from behind surgical masks, looking like specters from an apocalypse.
California is not natural Trump territory. All the less so after he outraged many here by initially responding to the state’s deadliest-ever wild fires with a political attack on forestry management policies, rather than offering help –- or even sympathy.
But Saturday, in a gruelling round trip from Washington that saw him ride Air Force One, helicopters and motorcades, he came to make amends.
“I just felt this was something we had to do,” he said, seemingly shocked by the intensity of what he’d witnessed.
Never is the power of a US president more tangible than in the spectacle of the motorcade, rolling with almost imperial self-confidence wherever the leader touches down on the planet.
But on this trip, all the impressive choreography of SUVs and armoured limos, support vans, bodyguards and travelling journalists was instantly eclipsed by the helplessness of the authorities in the face of such merciless natural forces.
Paradise, incinerated by wind-driven fires described as a blowtorch, was empty except for dust-covered emergency services personnel. Walking next to the mayor of a town that essentially no longer exists, Trump trod through ash, flanked by skeletal trees and twisted cars.
There was little this most voluble of presidents could say or do –- except to listen.
Firefighters told him at a base in nearby Chico of the terrifying hours when locals tried –- and in dozens of cases failed –- to escape flames, which Trump said moved as fast as the length of one “football field a second.”
“You know, it takes an extra five minutes and that’s the difference between life and death and you have no idea what’s going to happen,” Trump told journalists in amazement.
Then it was time to reboard Air Force One, which had delivered him from Washington earlier that morning, for a flight south to Malibu. Unlike, Paradise, which was home to many retirees on modest incomes, Malibu is the classic home of the California dream — for those who can afford it.
The walled-off villas of the rich, however, burned just as quickly as the RVs and small homes torched up north. Trump, a real estate billionaire, was aghast as he surveyed the devastation, framed by the Pacific Ocean and the southern California hills.
With him all day was California Governor Jerry Brown, a quiet-spoken Democrat who in many ways is the polar opposite to Trump, the Republican.
Bonded by the devastation, however, they became a little like one of the odd couples so beloved of the buddy movies churned out just a little further down the coast in Hollywood.
Trump said that they’d known each other for a long time but in those hours had got closer than “in 20 years.”
They even agreed to disagree, it seems, on the most contentious issue of the day –- the role of global climate change in accelerating annual fire seasons in California to such an unmanageable extent.
Trump, a defiant climate change sceptic, and Brown a firm believer in a trend confirmed by nearly all serious scientists, were never going to resolve their differences. Trump even insisted that they didn’t discuss the issue, to which Brown said that they had –- “obliquely.”
But they both said they agreed that poor management of the forests was part of the problem and that the federal government would step up to help the state.
“I think we have similarities in many ways,” Trump said in one of his several shows of unity.
Before departing back for Washington, to end an 18-hour day, Trump also made time to meet with victims of a very different kind of American disaster –- the shooting of 12 people at a bar in Thousand Oaks on November 7.
Trump left the media behind, talking privately with first responders who worked during the bloodshed and with families of victims.
At the steps of Air Force One afterward, he did not hide his emotion and fatigue.
“The families: what can you say, except that it’s so sad to see?” he said. “We just hugged them.”
“It’s been a tough day when you look at all the death from one place to the next.”