Trump Administration Reverses Course and Approves California Wildfire Relief

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President Donald Trump looks on with California Gov. Jerry Brown and then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as they view damage from wildfires in Paradise, California, on Nov. 17, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday afternoon that President Trump has approved California's latest request for federal wildfire aid, reversing a Federal Emergency Management Agency decision this week to deny the funds, which could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The request for disaster relief is aimed at cleaning up the damage from six recent wildfires among the siege of deadly and destructive blazes that have scorched the state.

White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in an email that Newsom and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, "presented a convincing case and additional on-the-ground perspective for reconsideration, leading the President to approve the declaration."

Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, for one, was skeptical of the administration's narrative.

Newsom had formally submitted a letter to the White House on Sept. 28 asking for a major disaster declaration. The request asked for aid to address damage caused by fires in San Diego, San Bernardino, Fresno, Madera, Mendocino, Los Angeles and Siskiyou counties.

Earlier Friday, Deere, addressing the denial, said that California had already received the funds that it was entitled to for recent wildfires.

"This summer, President Trump quickly approved wildfire relief for the State of California that was supported by damage estimates. In fact, this week the President made additional disaster assistance available to California by authorizing an increase in the level of Federal funding to 100% for debris removal and emergency protective measures undertaken as a result of the wildfires, beginning August 14, 2020, and continuing," Deere said in a statement.

"The more recent and separate California submission was not supported by the relevant data that States must provide for approval and the President concurred with the FEMA Administrator's recommendation."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency told CNN that damage assessments "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."

"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," FEMA said in a statement.

Before the administration reversed course, Brian Ferguson, from the governor's Office of Emergency Services, said California planned to appeal the decision, and that the state was "very much in the middle" of the process.

After the denial of California's request came to light Friday morning, Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents parts of Madera and Fresno counties, tweeted that McCarthy had communicated to him that President Trump had "committed to reverse FEMA's decision."

Denials Rare

The request for aid sent under Newsom's signature and addressed to Trump and FEMA Regional Administrator Robert J. Fenton Jr. references "countless miles of hazardous trees" on Los Angeles County roads from the Bobcat Fire; "significant damage" to parks in San Bernardino County as a result of the El Dorado Fire; and other infrastructure costs associated with roadways, bridges and buildings.

Before the reversal of FEMA's decision, Republican state Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno said there was no time to waste on bureaucratic finger-pointing and lauded the state Office of Emergency Services for pushing ahead with funding from a California disaster law in which the state will pay 75%, and counties 25%.

“Obviously, the problem is our clock is ticking and time is running out, and we're going to see rain pretty soon, snow pretty soon,” he said in an online briefing. “If we don't get into those areas quickly we're going to miss this window and we're going to end up seeing mudslides where this toxic debris goes into the San Joaquin River watershed.”

Federal major disaster declarations allow for cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal governments. They also activate relief programs led by FEMA.

Denials of relief are rare and Newsom has previously praised the Trump administration for approving aid related to the fires and California's struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

No major new fires were reported statewide early Friday, but warnings of dangerously hot, dry and gusty conditions that can fan fires were expected to remain in effect until the evening.

Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.

Thousands of Northern California residents remained without electricity Friday after a utility cut off service to prevent powerful winds from damaging equipment and sparking wildfires amid a fall heat wave.

Power restorations began Thursday afternoon and by evening, Pacific Gas and Electric said about 30,000 customers were still in the dark — down from about 45,000 the previous night.

All electricity was expected to be restored by late Friday after the second round of hot, dry gusts this week moved through the region and raised the risk of fires, PG&E said.

It has been a disastrous wildfire season in California, with more than 8,500 blazes burning more than 6,400 square miles (16,000 square kilometers) since the start of the year. Thirty-one people have died and some 9,200 buildings have been destroyed.

Meanwhile, winds in the Sierra Nevada foothills and San Francisco Bay Area topped 55 mph (89 kph), and humidity levels plummeted, making for critical fire conditions, said Scott Strenfel, the utility's senior meteorologist.

“Fuels are drying out, and they’re just very susceptible to any fire ignition, just given these levels of dryness that we’re seeing,” Strenfel said Thursday.

PG&E began cutting power Wednesday evening as the first wind event began. Many in the wine country north of San Francisco said they feel drained by what seems like a never-ending wildfire season.

Kathleen Collins has had to evacuate her home in the mountains of Napa County four times over the past five years because of fires. This summer, she lived in a motel for two weeks after leaving her home when a massive cluster of fires reached her tiny community of Pope Valley.

“It’s all very stressful. People are not happy, but there’s not much they can do about it,” said Collins, assistant manager at Silverado Ace Hardware store in Calistoga, the town of 5,000 people who were allowed to return home just last week after the Glass Fire forced them out in September.

The blaze that ravaged areas of Napa and Sonoma counties was contained Wednesday after destroying more than 1,500 homes and other buildings.

People have been buying generators, electrical cords, flashlights, batteries, gas cans and other supplies to help them deal with the latest outage, expected to last through Friday evening, Collins said.

The utility better targeted outages this time after it was criticized in 2019 for cutting power to about 800,000 customers and leaving about 2 million people in the dark for days.

Most of this year's fires have occurred since mid-August, when an unusual siege of thousands of lightning strikes ignited huge blazes.

The causes of two fires that broke out in September remain under investigation. PG&E equipment is being examined in connection with the Zogg Fire in Northern California and Southern California Edison equipment is under scrutiny in the Bobcat Fire near Los Angeles.

Smoke from the huge Creek Fire burning since Sept. 4 in the central part of the state was still affecting air quality as far south as Los Angeles, the National Weather Service said.

The weather service issued heat advisories through Friday, with temperatures expected to reach triple digits in many parts of the state.

In Southern California, a brush fire Thursday near the city of Redlands triggered a small evacuation as it grew to more than 170 acres (69 hectares). It was about 50% contained.

KQED's Jon Brooks contributed to this report.