LOS ANGELES - The Trump administration has rejected California's request for disaster relief funds aimed at cleaning up the damage from six recent fires across the state, including Los Angeles County's Bobcat fire, 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 move could heighten tensions between California and the president over wildfires. California saw record fires this year, fueled by several factors including climate change. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized California for its handling of fire policy, sometimes with misleading claims, and had rejected the role of rising temperatures as a factor.
More than 4 million acres burned in 2020, more than double the state's previous record. The fires this year have burned an area larger than the state of Connecticut and killed 31 people.
The decision came to light when the administration denied a request from Gov. Gavin Newsom for a major presidential disaster declaration, said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communication and media relations for the governor's Office of Emergency Services.
"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 officials said in a statement.
The agency said it was already assisting the state in combating wildfires. "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% of firefighting, 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."
California will appeal the decision, Ferguson said. The state and its local governments count on FEMA every year to help recover up to 75% of their staffing costs for sending firefighters into other jurisdictions - including onto federal land - to help fight wildfires for weeks at a time.
Trump has threatened to withhold federal dollars in aid before, including in 2019 unless state officials "get their act together, which is unlikely."
A major disaster declaration allows for cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal government. It also activates federal programs led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
California did not ask for a specific dollar amount because damage estimates are not complete, Ferguson said.
"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 Fire, Mendocino County's Oak fire and Siskiyou County's Slater 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 five of the six largest fires in California's recorded history have taken place this year.
The biggest is the August Complex fire, 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."
The governor also noted the cash-strapped nature of the state, which is projecting a pandemic-induced $54.3 billion 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 fire in Shasta County. The Zogg fire was extinguished on Tuesday, while the Glass fire is 97% contained.
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