The Trump administration reversed course on Friday and approved a request for emergency relief from California for recent fires that burned nearly 1.9 million acres, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and other structures and killed at least three people.
Gov. Gavin Newsum wrote a letter to the president last month requesting emergency funds, and a regional administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the White House to declare a “major disaster” in seven counties devastated by fires in September.
Newsom tweeted on Friday that it had approached President Donald Trump during a phone call and the president approved the disaster declaration after his administration initially rejected it.
“I am grateful for his quick response,”
The Trump administration initially refused to provide a fire disaster statement, according to a spokesman for the California Gov. Emergency Service.
“The state plans to appeal the decision and believes we have a strong argument that California’s request meets federal approval requirements,” spokesman Brian Ferguson said in a statement.
“Meanwhile, Cal OES continues to aggressively seek other available recovery / support options to help people and communities affected by these fires recover and recover.”
Ferguson told the Los Angeles Times that the state had not asked for a specific amount in dollars because it was still assessing the damage, but said it could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The real price will not be known for months or years after that,” he said.
California has a record year of fires with more than 8,500 fires, burning more than 4.1 million acres, 31 lives lost and more than 9,200 destroyed structures.
In his letter, Newsum thanked the president for his visit to California last month and for the state’s help with fires in August. But the governor wrote that the state “is experiencing another siege of fires since early September, which continue to devastate communities across the country.”
The fires caused so much damage that recovery efforts are “beyond the capabilities of the state,” he wrote.
FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said in a statement on Friday that the agency had made damage assessments and determined that “the fires in early September were not of such severity and magnitude as to exceed the state’s overall capabilities, affected local governments, voluntary agencies and other responsible federal agencies. “
Litzov said California has the opportunity to seek help from the Small Business Administration and other federal loan programs that homeowners, tenants and businesses could use to repay them.
She added that if the state finds additional information in support of its request for emergency funds, it can appeal the decision.
“FEMA approved four fire management grants in five forest fire districts included in the state’s disaster request, allowing reimbursement to the state, local authorities and other eligible agencies for 75 percent of firefighting, evacuation and shelter costs.” said Litzov. “These grants will provide millions of dollars in emergency aid and funds to reduce the risk of future disasters.”
The rejection of the governor’s request for help comes as much of Northern California remains under red flag warnings as the fires continue to burn. The state’s crews are battling 21 fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Thursday said in an update Thursday.
The biggest and most devastating flames this year occurred in mid-August, and the fire at the August complex quickly became the largest in the state’s history. The lightning-induced flames burned more than a million acres and were held 77 percent, according to Cal Fire.
Officials and experts attribute the increasingly intense seasons to forest fires to climate and the accumulation of dead and withered vegetation. Trump has criticized California’s Democratic leaders, often blaming them for the fires and downplaying the possible role of climate change.
Denis Romero contributed.