On Thursday, the federal government rejected California’s major disaster declaration request to help recover from 6 wildfires that burned throughout the state last month.
Last month, wildfires had once again erupted across California, killing over a dozen people in September alone, as well as causing tens of millions worth of damage and spreading wildfire crews thin due to the geographic distances between the fires. Many famed wineries were destroyed, with some national landmarks having fires coming within a few hundred feet from reaching and destroying them.
At the end of the month, the state assessed the damages from wildfires that had not yet been covered by emergency federal money. The Office of Emergency Services (OES) found that the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles County, the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera Counties, the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, the Oak Fire in Mendocino County, the Slater Fire in Siskiyou County, and the Valley Fire in San Diego County had, when combined, caused such damage that it was beyond the ability of the state to recover properly.
The state subsequently filed for a major disaster declaration request. Governor Gavin Newsom wrote to President Donald Trump on September 28th and asked him personally for assistance. In the letter, Newsom had thanked Trump for visiting the state in August, but that subsequent wildfires had hurt California once again.
“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 capability,” said Newsom in his letter. “Federal assistance is critical to support physical and economic recovery of California and its communities. The longer it takes for California and its communities to recover, the more severe, devastating, and irreversible the economic impacts will be.”
The state’s request was vetted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who soon came to the conclusion that while the wildfires were severe, the agency had already given emergency assistance grants for four of the wildfires listed in the state’s request and were not severe enough to exceed state capabilities.
“FEMA made damage assessments and 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,” said FEMA press secretary Lizzie Litzow during a press conference on Friday. “FEMA approved four Fire Management Assistance Grants in five counties for wildfires included in the state’s disaster request, allowing reimbursement to state, local governments and other eligible agencies for 75 percent of firefighting, evacuation and sheltering costs. These grants will deliver millions of dollars of assistance for emergency expenses and funds to help reduce the risks of future disasters.”
FEMA’s assessment next led President Trump to formally turn down the state’s request as it was not supported by the right data and that the decision was based off of FEMA’s recommendation.
“This summer, President Trump quickly approved wildfire relief for the State of California that was supported by damage estimates,” said Deputy White House Press Secretary Judd Deere on Friday. “In fact, this week the President made additional disaster assistance available to California by authorizing an increase in the level of Federal funding to 100% for debris removal and emergency protective measures undertaken as a result of the wildfires, beginning August 14, 2020, and continuing.
“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.”
Many critics quickly charged that the President had used personal feelings of California as reasoning for his rejection, using some of his prior statements about the state as evidence. Many prominent politicians, including Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Judy Chu (D-CA), tweeted on Friday, accusing the President of punishing the state for many lawmakers there not supporting him.
Disaster aid should not be political. I'm proud that both @SpeakerPelosi & @GOPLeader
joined my letter supporting a major disaster declaration in California. But Trump said no because he doesn't see us as Americans, only voters to reward or punish. pic.twitter.com/2GiVcDwT5A
— Judy Chu (@RepJudyChu) October 16, 2020
However, many experts say that the President was just following the advice of FEMA.
“If you look at the facts of this, it’s clear that this was evidence-based and not personal,”explained former disaster relief disbursement manager Rod Zimmerman. “Presidents have rejected similar requests before because of FEMA already giving help or it not being that severe. Bush declined to give additional hurricane relief at times, and Obama didn’t follow up on some requests from states affected by oil spills. Trump is just doing the same, but since it’s California, it’s automatically personal.
“I mean, the state didn’t even have a fixed dollar amount needed in the request. All the California Governor said was that the fires exceeded $229 million in damages. I mean, you can’t just ask for a blank check. For a documented disaster like this, you need to give a figure. It’s really no wonder this was rejected.
“California needs more emergency funding. Most people agree with that. But California just gave a textbook way on how not to get a request approved. They didn’t get specific.”
In a statement, California OES said that they were going to appeal the federal decision.
“The state plans to appeal the decision and believes we have a strong case that California’s request meets the federal requirements for approval,” explained OES spokesman Brian Ferguson on Friday. “Meantime, Cal OES continues to aggressively pursue other available avenues for reimbursement/support to help individuals and communities impacted by these fires rebuild and recover.”
As of Friday, wildfires in California this year have burned 4.1 million acres of land, with 31 people dead and 9,200 structures destroyed by the fires.