Newsom: California will appeal Trump administration’s rejection of state’s request for wildfire disaster aid

California

FILE – In this Sept. 7, 2020, file photo, a firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif. This year’s fires have taxed the human, mechanical and financial resources of the nation’s wildfire fighting forces to a degree that few past blazes did. And half of the fire season is yet to come. (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California will appeal President Donald Trump’s administration’s rejection of the state’s request for disaster relief funds aimed at cleaning up the damage from six recent wildfires, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday.

Newsom had formally submitted a letter to the White House on Sept. 28 asking for a major disaster declaration, said Brian Ferguson, with the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Robert Barker, spokesman for Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 9 released the following statement on the denial of funds:

The damage assessments FEMA 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. For example, the state may request assistance from the Small Business Administration, which could provide low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters and businesses to meet their recovery needs. Other federal programs may also become available to aid recovery. But we cannot stress enough, insurance is always the most frequent financial source of help after disasters. If someone has insurance, they should file a claim immediately. The faster they file, the faster their recovery can begin. 

Robert Barker
FEMA Region 9

“The state plans to appeal the decision and believes we have a strong case that California’s request meets the federal requirements for approval,” Ferguson said in an email to The Associated Press on Friday.

In the meantime, the state is pursuing other avenues for reimbursement and support to help individuals and communities rebuild and recover, he said.

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.

Denials of relief are rare and Newsom has previously praised the Trump administration for approving aid related to the fires and California’s struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, which represents parts of Fresno and Madera counties affected by the Creek Fire, said there was “bipartisan disgust” over the calculations that led to FEMA’s move to deny the funds in a Friday conference call with reporters.

He went on to say that believed that the federal agency would overturn its decision and provide the funds to the state.

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.

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.

Thousands of Northern California residents remained without electricity Friday after a utility cut off service to prevent 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 after the second round of hot, dry gusts this week moved through the region and raised the risk of fires, PG&E said.

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.

Meanwhile, winds in the Sierra Nevada foothills and San Francisco Bay Area topped 55 mph (89 kph), and humidity levels plummeted, making for critical fire conditions, said Scott Strenfel, the utility’s senior meteorologist.

“Fuels are drying out, and they’re just very susceptible to any fire ignition, just given these levels of dryness that we’re seeing,” Strenfel said Thursday.

PG&E began cutting power Wednesday evening as the first wind event began. Many in the wine country north of San Francisco said they feel drained by what seems like a never-ending wildfire season.

Kathleen Collins has had to evacuate her home in the mountains of Napa County four times over the past five years because of fires. This summer, she lived in a motel for two weeks after leaving her home when a massive cluster of fires reached her tiny community of Pope Valley.

“It’s all very stressful. People are not happy, but there’s not much they can do about it,” said Collins, assistant manager at Silverado Ace Hardware store in Calistoga, the town of 5,000 people who were allowed to return home just last week after the Glass Fire forced them out in September.

The blaze that ravaged areas of Napa and Sonoma counties was contained Wednesday after destroying more than 1,500 homes and other buildings.

People have been buying generators, electrical cords, flashlights, batteries, gas cans and other supplies to help them deal with the latest outage, expected to last through Friday evening, Collins 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.

Smoke from the huge Creek Fire burning since Sept. 4 in the central part of the state was still affecting air quality as far south as Los Angeles, the National Weather Service said.

The weather service issued heat advisories through Friday, with temperatures expected to reach triple digits in many parts of the state.

In Southern California, a brush fire Thursday near the city of Redlands triggered a small evacuation as it grew to more than 170 acres (69 hectares). It was about 50% contained.

For local, national, and breaking news, and to get weather alerts, download our FREE mobile app from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

CBS47 On Your Side

Do you have a problem that you need help solving? Contact CBS47 and let us be On Your Side.

Phone: 559-761-0383
Email: OnYourSide@cbsfresno.com