UPDATE: Trump changes course, approves California relief for 6 fires
President Donald Trump’s administration abruptly reversed course and approved California’s application for disaster relief funds to clean up damage from six recent deadly and destructive blazes that have scorched the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday.
"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 brief statement.
Neither he nor the White House immediately gave details on why the administration shifted positions only hours after it initially denied the state’s request for a declaration that officials said could provide the state with hundreds of millions of dollars.
White House spokesman Judd Deere previously said California’s request "was not supported by the relevant data" needed for approval and that Trump agreed with a recommendation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator to reject the declaration.
"The Governor and (GOP) Leader (Kevin) McCarthy spoke and presented a convincing case and additional on-the-ground perspective for reconsideration leading the President to approve the declaration," Deere said in a statement after Trump’s change of heart.
The state had planned to appeal the denial and believed it had a strong case, Brian Ferguson, a spokesman with the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said before the reversal.
Newsom had asked for the major disaster declaration on Sept. 28 to cover fires in Fresno, Los Angeles, Madera, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego and Siskiyou counties.
The 30-page request described the disasters and pointed out that damage assessments were incomplete because the fires were still raging and access was difficult.
Federal major disaster declarations allow for cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal governments. They also activate relief programs led by FEMA.
The dispute surfaced as a representative of one fire-stricken area warned that time was running out to clean up debris before rain and snow arrived, bringing the threat of mudslides and toxins being washed into a river watershed.
Denials of relief are rare and Newsom, a Democrat, has previously praised the Republican administration for approving aid related to the fires and the coronavirus pandemic. The White House said Trump quickly approved wildfire relief that was supported by damage estimates.
Among the fires listed in the now-approved aid application is the Creek Fire, which erupted in the Sierra Nevada on Sept. 4 and is 60% contained after burning 850 homes and more than 537 square miles (1,391 square kilometers) in Fresno and Madera counties.
Republican state Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno said before the reversal that he had consulted with area congressional offices.
"I have gotten encouraging response that FEMA is beginning to understand that they may have made a mistake here," he said.
Patterson said, however, there was no time to waste on bureaucratic finger-pointing and lauded the state Office of Emergency Services for pushing ahead with funding from a California disaster law in which the state will pay 75% and counties pay 25%.
"Obviously, the problem is our clock is ticking and time is running out, and we’re going to see rain pretty soon, snow pretty soon," he told an online briefing. "If we don’t get into those areas quickly we’re going to miss this window and we’re going to end up seeing mudslides where this toxic debris goes into the San Joaquin River watershed."
No major new fires were reported statewide early Friday, but warnings of dangerously hot, dry and gusty conditions that can fan fires were expected to remain in effect until the evening. Nearly 9,000 firefighters remain on the lines of 21 fires.
Near San Francisco’s international airport, crews were battling a smoky grass fire burning on a highly visible hill with an iconic sign welcoming people to "South San Francisco." The city of nearly 70,000 people said on social media that authorities were on the scene and evacuation instructions would follow if needed.
Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.
It has been a disastrous wildfire season in California, with more than 8,500 blazes burning more than 6,400 square miles (16,000 square kilometers) since the start of the year. Thirty-one people have died and some 9,200 buildings have been destroyed.
Thousands of Northern California residents remained without electricity Friday after a utility cut off service to prevent the latest round of powerful winds from damaging equipment and sparking wildfires amid a fall heat wave.
Power restorations began Thursday afternoon and by evening Pacific Gas and Electric said about 30,000 customers were still in the dark — down from about 45,000 the previous night.
All electricity was expected to be restored by late Friday, PG&E said.
The utility better targeted outages this time after it was criticized in 2019 for cutting power to about 800,000 customers and leaving about 2 million people in the dark for days.
Most of this year’s fires have occurred since mid-August, when an unusual siege of thousands of lightning strikes ignited huge blazes.
The causes of two fires that broke out in September remain under investigation. PG&E equipment is being examined in connection with the Zogg Fire in Northern California, and Southern California Edison equipment is under scrutiny in the Bobcat Fire near Los Angeles.