California Secures Wildfire Disaster Relief After White House About-Face

The wind whips embers from the Joshua trees burned by the Bobcat Fire in Juniper Hills, Calif., Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

(CN) — Hours after the Trump administration said it would deny California’s request for federal disaster assistance amid a record-setting wildfire season that has blackened over 4 million acres across the state, the president reversed course and approved the funding.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said Friday he secured federal disaster relief for wildfires that have ripped through Los Angeles, Madera, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego, Fresno and Siskiyou counties.

“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response,” Newsom said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, Newsom said he intended to appeal the federal government’s decision on Thursday to withhold funding for the most recent wildfires after a tumultuous season that saw a record-breaking number of acres charred during August and September heatwaves.

Six mega-wildfires wreaked havoc across California in recent months, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and destroying an untold number of homes and other property.

The wildfires have so far claimed 31 lives this year according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Before Newsom announced the about-face, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the damage caused by the historic wildfires wasn’t bad enough to warrant federal assistance.

“The damage assessments conducted with state and local partners 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 said in a statement.

The size of Northern California’s August Complex alone exceeds that of all the forest fires that burned in the state between 1932 and 1999 — over 1 million acres have burned across six counties since mid-August, Newsom said earlier this month.

The historic wildfire season has prompted a debate about the causes, with Newsom and others pointing the finger at climate change. President Donald Trump, who visited the state in September, calls for better forest management.

“They have to do forest management,” Trump said on the tarmac of the former McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento. “Other places it doesn’t happen much, where they manage their forests; it should happen here.”

Asked about the role climate change plays in the wildfire siege and whether more should be done to reduce emissions, Trump responded that he doubts the United States could make a real global impact in the first place. The president, who pulled the U.S. out of the international Paris climate agreement, questioned whether countries like Russia and China would follow suit even if he made climate change a top priority. 

The Creek Fire has burned over 340,000 acres in Fresno and Madera counties and a month after it sparked is still not fully contained. The blaze is just one of many wildfires in 2020 that stretched across multiple counties up and down the state, spreading wildfire smoke across the region and darkening skies not just in California but across the nation and even far-flung parts of the globe.

Earlier this week, FEMA said it would make new disaster assistance available to California for the wildfire disaster declared on Aug. 22. That funding was a patchwork of public and individual assistance for central and northern California counties.

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