The Trump administration has rejected California’s request for disaster relief aid for six recent fires that have scorched more than 1.8 million acres in land, destroyed thousands of structures and caused at least three deaths, a state official said.
“The request for a Major Presidential Disaster Declaration for early September fires has been denied by the federal administration,” Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the governor’s office of emergency services, said late Thursday.
The state plans to appeal the decision, Mr. Ferguson said, adding that the state believes it has a “strong case that California’s request meets the federal requirements for approval.”
Lizzie Litzow, a press secretary for FEMA, said on Friday that the damage assessments completed 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.”
The aid rejection came weeks after President Trump visited California after a period of silence on its wildfires and blamed poor forest management, not climate change, for the crisis. “I don’t think science knows” what is happening, he said, when the state’s secretary for natural resources pressed him.
During that same meeting, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California thanked the president for the help the administration had given toward its Fire Management Assistance Grant requests, adding the amount of federal support the state had received “may be a record.”
Mr. Newsom last month requested the declaration to include statewide hazard mitigation, as well as public assistance for seven counties. His request, in the form of a letter to Mr. Trump, also noted how the fires had impacted communities amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused widespread economic damage.
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 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 the single largest fire in California history, Mr. Newsom said in his letter. The fire has so far damaged more than 550 homes, threatens thousands more and has forced more than 24,000 people to evacuate.
According to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, as of Thursday the Creek Fire has burned more than 341,000 acres and is 58 percent contained.
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, the agency said in its statewide fire summary on Thursday. The total number of statewide deaths related to these fires is at least 31, it said.
While the state did not include a specific dollar amount in its request, Mr. Newsom wrote that because of a recession induced by the 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 letter, Mr. Newsom acknowledged that President 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 the costs of it all are considerable.
“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.
Jill Cowan contributed reporting