In re­ver­sal, U. S. to pro­vide state dis­as­ter fund­ing

Trump over­rules FEMA af­ter elected of­fi­cials from both par­ties get in­volved.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Serna and Phil Wil­lon

Heed­ing ap­peals from elected lead­ers, FEMA says it will send money for Cal­i­for­nia’s worst f ire sea­son on record.

A re­jec­tion from the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency to pro­vide aid to Cal­i­for­nia for nu­mer­ous re­cent wild­fires was re­versed Fri­day fol­low­ing ap­peals from the gov­er­nor and Repub­li­can law­mak­ers.

“Just got off the phone with Pres­i­dent Trump, who has ap­proved our ma­jor dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion re­quest. Grate­ful for his quick re­sponse,” Gov. Gavin New­som said in an af­ter­noon state­ment.

The prior evening, FEMA re­jected the state’s re­quest for dis­as­ter re­lief funds for six re­cent Cal­i­for­nia wildf ires, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les County’s Bob­cat f ire, San Bernardino County’s El Do­rado fire, and the Creek fire, one of the largest that con­tin­ues to burn in Fresno and Madera coun­ties.

The de­ci­sion was met with out­cry from of­fi­cials in Cal­i­for­nia, which has ex­pe­ri­enced its worst f ire sea­son on record in 2020.

“I have per­son­ally toured the dam­aged ar­eas and lis­tened to heart­break­ing sto­ries from peo­ple who lost their homes and busi­nesses to the Creek fire,” state Sen. An­dreas Borgeas ( R- Modesto) wrote in a let­ter to the White House on Fri­day, ask­ing it to re­con­sider FEMA’s de­ci­sion. “Many of the struc­tures de­stroyed were lo­cated on fed­eral lands and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties sup­ported tourists who come to en­joy the na­tional parks.”

Borgeas’ dis­trict in­cludes the Sierra Na­tional For­est, where the Creek f ire has burned some 340,000 acres and where Na­tional Guard troops re­cently helped air­lift hun­dreds of peo­ple cut off due to the f lames. Trump rec­og­nized those troop mem­bers in a re­cent cer­e­mony in Sacramento.

When word of FEMA’s ini­tial re­jec­tion first reached Cal­i­for­nia, emer­gency of­fi­cials scram­bled to find money in a bud­get al­ready dev­as­tated by the coro­n­avirus. Within hours how­ever, Rep. Tom McClin­tock ( R- Elk Grove) tweeted that House Mi­nor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy ( R- Bak­ers­field) had spo­ken with Trump and that a “pres­i­den­tial dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion is im­mi­nent and help is on the way.”

The gov­er­nor’s of­fice soon con­firmed that as­ser­tion.

New­som on Fri­day said he spoke with Trump about re­con­sid­er­ing the state’s re­jected ap­pli­ca­tion for fed­eral wild­fire as­sis­tance and the pres­i­dent, who was aboard Air Force One, al­most im­me­di­ately said he would ap­prove it. “I couldn’t even f in­ish the ask,” New­som said dur­ing a re­mote ap­pear­ance at the Milken In­sti­tute’s Global Con­fer­ence. “He said, ‘ You got it. I’m sign­ing off on that ma­jor dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion in Cal­i­for­nia.’ ”

De­spite the con­tentious re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and the pres­i­dent, New­som has con­sis­tently said that he’s had a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the ad­min­is­tra­tion when deal­ing with the COVID- 19 pan­demic and re­sponse to the state’s wild­fires.

The state’s f ires have been fu­eled by sev­eral fac­tors, in­clud­ing cli­mate change. Trump has re­peat­edly crit­i­cized Cal­i­for­nia for its han­dling of f ire pol­icy,

some­times with mis­lead­ing claims, and had re­jected the role of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures as a fac­tor.

More than 4 mil­lion acres have burned this year, more than double the state’s pre­vi­ous record. The f ires have scorched an area larger than the state of Con­necti­cut and have killed 31 peo­ple.

A ma­jor dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion al­lows for cost- shar­ing for staffing, dam­age, cleanup and re­build­ing be­tween the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment. It also ac­ti­vates fed­eral pro­grams led by FEMA.

In its ini­tial re­jec­tion, FEMA said the f ires “were not of such sever­ity and mag­ni­tude to ex­ceed the com­bined ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the state, af­fected lo­cal gov­ern­ments, vol­un­tary agen­cies and other re­spond­ing fed­eral agen­cies.”

The agency said it was al­ready as­sist­ing the state in com­bat­ing wild­fires. “FEMA ap­proved four f ire man­age­ment as­sis­tance grants in five coun­ties for wild­fires in­cluded in the state’s dis­as­ter re­quest, al­low­ing re­im­burse­ment to state, lo­cal gov­ern­ments and other el­i­gi­ble agen­cies for 75% of firef ight­ing, evac­u­a­tion and shel­ter­ing costs. These grants will de­liver mil­lions of dol­lars of as­sis­tance for emer­gency ex­penses and funds to help re­duce the risks of fu­ture dis­as­ters. If the state iden­ti­fies ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion to sup­port the re­quest, it may ap­peal the de­ci­sion within 30 days.”

The state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments rely on FEMA ev­ery year to help re­cover up to 75% of their staffing costs for

send­ing f ire­fight­ers into other ju­ris­dic­tions — in­clud­ing onto fed­eral land — to help fight wild­fires for weeks at a time.

Fed­eral doc­u­ments f iled with the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter show costs to date to f ight the Bob­cat f ire in Los An­ge­les County, the El Do­rado f ire in San Bernardino County and the Slater f ire in Siskiyou County were $ 67.8 mil­lion, $ 38.4 mil­lion and $ 44.8 mil­lion, re­spec­tively. The agen­cies that sent f ire­fight­ers to those blazes gen­er­ally ex

pect to be paid back a por­tion of the costs for send­ing their crews.

Cal­i­for­nia did not ask for a spe­cific dol­lar amount be­cause dam­age es­ti­mates are not com­plete, said Brian Fer­gu­son, deputy di­rec­tor of cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion and me­dia re­la­tions for the gov­er­nor’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices. “The true cost won’t be known for months or years after­ward,” he said.

He added: “What the state is look­ing for is the high­est level of fed­eral sup­port, which re­quires the

high­est bars be cleared. But we feel our case for those re­quire­ments has been met.”

Ac­cord­ing to Fer­gu­son, such aid could eas­ily reach into the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

The state is also ask­ing for aid for San Diego County’s Val­ley f ire and Men­do­cino County’s Oak fire.

New­som for­mally sub­mit­ted a let­ter to the White House and FEMA on Sept. 28 ask­ing for such a dec­la­ra­tion and cit­ing the fact that f ive of the six largest f ires in Cal­i­for­nia’s recorded his­tory

have taken place this year.

The big­gest is the Au­gust Com­plex f ire, which be­gan Aug. 16 and as of Oct. 15 had burned just over 1 mil­lion acres through seven North­ern Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties and was 77% con­tained.

New­som also said funds would go to­ward help­ing re­build pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture, miles of roads, parks, signs and fire shel­ters.

“Many of the coun­ties im­pacted by these wild­fires are still re­cov­er­ing from pre­vi­ous dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires, storms and the ef­fects of the

COVID- 19 pan­demic,” New­som wrote.

He added, “Cal­i­for­ni­ans are ex­hausted.”

Many res­i­dents lost homes and prop­erty that was unin­sured. Ac­cord­ing to New­som, as of Sept. 28, 959 res­i­dences were de­stroyed by f ires and 90 more were dam­aged, to­tal­ing an es­ti­mated $ 264,289,200. The gov­er­nor also noted the cash- strapped na­ture of the state, which is pro­ject­ing a pan­demic- in­duced $ 54.3bil­lion deficit this fis­cal year.

In Fe­bru­ary, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment agreed to pay back Cal­i­for­nia more than $ 170 mil­lion for re­pair to the Oroville Dam spill­way. Over­all, the gov­ern­ment kicked in $ 562.5 mil­lion for the project.

Cal­i­for­nia pre­vi­ously suc­cess­fully ap­plied for a dec­la­ra­tion from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for two fires caused by light­ning, in­clud­ing the Com­plex fire, in Au­gust.

New­som will also prob­a­bly ask for an­other dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion, Fer­gu­son said, for the Glass fire in Sonoma County and the Zogg f ire in Shasta County. The Zogg f ire was ex­tin­guished on Tues­day and the Glass fire is 97% con­tained.

For many in state gov­ern­ment, FEMA’s ini­tial de­ci­sion to re­ject the fund­ing re­quest was rem­i­nis­cent of a Trump tweet last year in which the pres­i­dent said FEMA should with­hold aid to Cal­i­for­nia un­less state of­fi­cials “get their act to­gether, which is un­likely.” The ad­min­is­tra­tion ul­ti­mately backed off on that threat.

Robert Gauthier Los An­ge­les Times

CREWS bat­tle the Bob­cat f ire near Mt. Wil­son last month. Fed­eral doc­u­ments show that costs to date to f ight the blaze were $ 67.8 mil­lion, one of a string of costly wild­fires that have hit Cal­i­for­nia this year.

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