In Rare Move, Trump Administration Rejects California’s Request for Wildfire Relief

MORAGA, Calif. — The Trump administration has rejected California’s request for disaster relief aid for six major wildfires that scorched more than 1.8 million acres in land, destroyed thousands of structures and caused at least three deaths last month.

The rejection of aid late Thursday, a rare move in cases of disasters on the scale of California’s fires, escalated a long-running feud between the Trump administration and California on the issues of climate change and forest management.

California has suffered a series of record-breaking fires since August, when freak lightning storms ignited hundreds of fires. Subsequent fires in September tore through parts of the Sierra Nevada and wine country north of San Francisco.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said President Trump had already come to the state’s assistance when his administration authorized increased funding for debris removal from the fires as well as relief for the August fires.

“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,” Mr. Deere said.

California officials immediately pushed back on that assessment. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state’s office of emergency services, said the state had a “strong case” that it meets the federal requirements for approval and planned to appeal the decision.

While the state did not include a specific dollar amount in its request, Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote that because of a recession induced by the coronavirus pandemic, California went from a projected $5.6 billion budget surplus to a $54.3 billion projected deficit. “California’s economy is suffering in a way we have not seen since the 2009 Great Recession,” he said in the request, which came in the form of a letter to Mr. Trump.

ImageThe rejection of aid was a rare move in cases of disasters on the scale of California’s fires.
Credit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Infrastructure damage estimates from the fires had exceeded $229 million, Mr. Newsom said, and “the severity and magnitude of these fires continue to cause significant impacts to the state and to the affected local jurisdictions, such that recovery efforts remain beyond the state’s capabilities.”

The handling of wildfires has become highly politicized during Mr. Trump’s presidency, aggravating tensions between the conservative administration and one of America’s most liberal states. California has sued the president on dozens of issues ranging from the environment to immigration.

Last year, the president threatened to cut off funding for wildfire relief unless California improved the management of its forests.

“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Mr. Trump tweeted in January 2019. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money.”

Mr. Trump’s threat at the time alarmed both Republicans and Democrats in the state. And wildfire experts say Mr. Trump’s analysis is problematic because most of California’s forests are on land owned by the federal government and their maintenance largely falls under the responsibility of his administration.

As wildfires have become hotter, more intense and more destructive in recent years liberals and conservatives in the state have been locked in a debate over the reasons. During a visit to California in September, Mr. Trump said “I don’t think science knows” what is happening when the state’s secretary for natural resources pressed him on the changing climate.

“One camp is saying it’s all climate change driven, and the other saying it’s all forest management,” said Malcolm North a forest ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “The reality is that it’s both. I get kind of frustrated at this all-or-nothing type of approach.”

Professor North said the lightning-ignited fires in conifer forests this summer in California were driven in large part by decades of fire suppression — putting out forest fires — and a lack of stewardship that allowed forests to build up two or three times the timber and brush that they have had historically.

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Part of the answer of avoiding the catastrophic fires California has seen over the past year, said Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley, is a radical increase in the number of people assigned to actively managing forests — whether by deliberately setting smaller, more manageable fires as Native American groups did for millennia or by slashing back overgrown forests. Professor Stephens said California needed to increase the pace and scale of forest management projects “probably by a factor of 10.”

But both Professor North and Professor Stephens said the role of climate change in the increasing size and intensity of the fires was also undeniable.

Governor Newsom last month requested the disaster declaration to include statewide hazard mitigation, as well as public assistance for seven counties.

The six fires targeted under the declaration include the Valley Fire in San Diego, the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino, the Slater Fire in Siskiyou, the Oak Fire in Mendocino, the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles and the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera, Mr. Ferguson said. The state this year has suffered four of its five largest wildfires in modern history.

The Creek Fire that started on Sept. 4 is among the largest fires in California history, burning 344,000 acres as of Friday. The fire, the scene of dramatic helicopter rescues, has so far damaged more than 550 homes, threatens thousands more and has forced more than 24,000 people to evacuate. It is 60 percent contained.

Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Managing wildfires has become an ongoing task for firefighters, officials and residents. Since the beginning of the year, more than 8,500 wildfires have burned over 4.1 million acres in California, CalFire said in its statewide fire summary on Thursday. The total number of statewide deaths related to these fires is at least 31, it said.

The threat of more fires this year continues to haunt the state. With record-breaking temperatures and high winds this week, large parts of Northern California are under “red flag warnings” and the state’s largest utility has cut power to more than 50,000 households in an effort to reduce the possibility that its equipment could ignite new fires.

In his letter, Mr. Newsom acknowledged that Mr. Trump had issued a number of Major Disaster Declarations for the state in recent years, including a declaration for fires in Northern California, which are still burning. Those declarations help the state access federal resources and assistance.

California has been smacked in the face from climate change, one scientist said, and is likely to face increasing demands on its financial resources.

“We’re setting records year after year,” Tom Corringham, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told The New York Times last month. “It’s a little early to say what the total impacts are going to be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the damages are over $20 billion this year.”

Over the past 50 years, excluding the last four, wildfires averaged about the same in direct damages: a billion dollars per year, adjusted for inflation.

But in three of the past four years, including this one, fires are on track to cause damages in excess of $10 billion.

“We’ve seen an order of magnitude leap in damages in the last four years,” Mr. Corringham said.

Thomas Fuller reported from Moraga, and Derrick Bryson Taylor from London. Jill Cowan contributed reporting from Los Angeles, and Annie Karni from Washington.

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