When President Donald Trump landed in Sacramento this week as the worst wildfires in California’s history continued to burn, there were no state officials on the tarmac to welcome him.
Instead California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom — a future presidential hopeful and the man charged with battling the blaze — ignored the usual protocols and met the president’s delegation inside a nearby hangar.
During the briefing Mr Newsom tiptoed around the president, thanking him for “record” amounts of emergency federal support, while cautiously urging Mr Trump to accept the role of climate change in the fires. Some 4.5m acres along America’s west coast had burnt by Tuesday night.
“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,” Mr Newsom said. He reiterated that 57 per cent of forest land was controlled by the federal government.
Mr Newsom’s personal distaste for Mr Trump has been evident since at least November 2018, when the president blamed poor forest management, not the realities of climate change, for the deadliest fire in the state’s history.
At last month’s Democratic National Convention, Mr Newsom mocked Mr Trump’s claims he would withhold funding over the issue. “You can’t make that up,” he said.
But with this year’s fires still burning and 34 people already dead, Mr Newsom now has to find ways to work with Mr Trump, observers said, even if the pair remain ideologically opposed on the issue of the climate crisis.
“Newsom’s really done a great job of not trying to antagonise the president,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, who served as deputy chief of staff to former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“He’s thankful and complimentary of the president, and strokes his ego in a cunning way — that is helpful to him.”
After meeting with the president, Mr Newsom — alone — visited Butte County, the scene of 2018’s worst fires, and where this year at least 15 people died in the 250,000-acre North Complex Fire, which has been burning since mid-August.
“I don’t envy Gavin’s position at all,” said Kevin Phillips, town manager of Paradise, a town almost completely destroyed by flames two years ago when more than 80 residents lost their lives.
“I think he’s trying to balance one natural disaster against another,” he said after meeting with Mr Newsom, in a reference to the twin crises of the wildfires and Covid-19. “But trying to meld the two is kind of like putting water and oil together.”
That challenge was evident in the nearby city of Oroville this week, where several business owners, backed by the city’s mayor, opted to defy the governor’s orders and reopen for indoor operations after the wildfires had made it unhealthy to be outside.
“There’s scientific evidence proving climate change is real and I do think we need to address it,” said Brandy Poe, manager at one reopened restaurant. “But Newsom needs to address his policies regarding thinning the forests — and start getting it done.”
The governor has faced criticism in some quarters for focusing too heavily on longer-term climate goals — such as a pledge that all trucks sold in California will be emissions free by 2045 — rather than immediate reforms to reverse what fire safety experts agree has been a misguided, decades-long strategy of fire suppression rather than prevention.
Some fire-specific measures have been taken. Last month, Mr Newsom signed an agreement with the federal government to spend about $1bn in federal money on fire preparedness in California, making it possible to manage as many as 1m acres of forest and wildlands a year with measures such as controlled burning.
Another law, passed by Mr Newsom’s predecessor in 2018, gives additional powers and funding to state fire agencies to enforce safety standards — such as the width of access roads — in rural communities previously overlooked.
“It sets up a consistent framework across the state,” explained Molly Mowery, a wildfire safety consultant who is advising California on preventive measures. “Decades of decisions can’t be changed overnight,” she stressed, “but I think California is doing a lot of things right.”
Other efforts designed to fund the “hardening” of structures have temporarily fallen by the wayside — apparent victims of budget constraints created by the pandemic.
Should Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win in November’s election, Mr Newsom can expect stronger federal support. Mr Biden this week called Mr Trump a “climate arsonist”, while vice-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, who met with Mr Newsom in California on Tuesday, said “we have to do better as a country”.
But even if Mr Trump wins a second term, observers say Mr Newsom appears to have tapped into a formula for getting more from the president.
“Newsom has been the model of how a Democrat governor can navigate the burden of doing a difficult job, without getting into a political spat with this administration,” said Mr Stutzman, the Republican strategist.
“It has taken remarkable discipline. It would be so easy to make a side comment, or take a potshot, and he just doesn’t do it. He’s really kept his eye on the ball.”