Trump administration reverses course on California wildfire aid

Minyvonne Burke
Gene Belvins | Reuters

The Trump administration reversed course Friday and approved California's emergency aid request for recent wildfires that scorched nearly 1.9 million acres, destroyed over 3,300 homes and other structures and killed at least three people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to the president last month requesting emergency funds, and a regional administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the White House to declare "a major disaster" in seven counties ravaged by fires in September.

Newsom tweeted Friday that he appealed to President Donald Trump during a phone call, and the president approved the disaster declaration after his administration initially rejected it.

"Grateful for his quick response," the governor said.

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The Trump administration at first refused to grant a disaster declaration for the fires, according to a spokesman for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

"The state plans to appeal the decision and believes we have a strong case that California's request meets the federal requirements for approval," spokesman Brian Ferguson said in a statement.

"Meantime, Cal OES continues to aggressively pursue other available avenues for reimbursement/support to help individuals and communities impacted by these fires rebuild and recover."

Ferguson told the Los Angeles Times that the state did not ask for a specific dollar amount because they are still assessing damage, but he said such aid could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The true cost won't be known for months or years afterward," he said.

California has had a record wildfire year, with over 8,500 blazes, more than 4.1 million acres burned, 31 lives lost and over 9,200 structures destroyed.

In his letter, Newsom thanked the president for visiting California last month and for aid the state received for fires that occurred in August. But the governor wrote that the state is "experiencing another siege of fires from early September, which continue to devastate communities throughout the state."

The blazes caused so much devastation that recovery efforts are "beyond the state's capabilities," he wrote.

FEMA's press secretary, Lizzie Litzow, said in a statement Friday that the agency made damage assessments and determined that "the early September fires 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."

Litzow said California has the option to request assistance from the Small Business Administration and from other federal programs for loans that homeowners, renters and businesses could use to them recover.

She also said that if the state finds additional information to support their request for emergency funds, it can appeal the decision.

"FEMA approved four Fire 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 percent of firefighting, evacuation and sheltering costs," Litzow said. "These grants will deliver millions of dollars of assistance for emergency expenses and funds to help reduce the risks of future disasters."

The rejection of the governor's aid request comes as much of Northern California remains under red-flag warnings as fires continue to burn. Statewide crews are battling 21 wildfires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in an update Thursday.

The largest and most destructive blazes this year have occurred since mid-August, with the August Complex fire quickly becoming the biggest in state history. The blaze, which was sparked by a lightning strike, has burned over a million acres and is 77 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

Officials and experts attribute the state's increasingly intense wildfire seasons to climate change and a buildup of dead and dried-out vegetation. Trump has been critical of Democratic leaders in California, often blaming them for the fires and downplaying the possible role of climate change.