Trump administration reverses decision to deny California’s request for fire disaster assistance

A disaster declaration allows cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding

Updated October 16, 2020   |   3:25 p.m. MDT

Friday afternoon the Trump administration reversed their decision to deny the request submitted by California for a disaster declaration for six destructive wildfires in 2020.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the President has approved California’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration to bolster the state’s emergency response to wildfires across the state and support impacted residents in Fresno, Los Angeles, Madera, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego and Siskiyou counties.

“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response,” said Governor Newsom.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration helps people in the impacted counties through eligibility for support including crisis counseling, housing and unemployment assistance and legal services. It also provides federal assistance to help state, tribal and local governments fund emergency response, recovery and protective measures.

October 16, 2020   |   8:20 a.m. PDT

Fires California aid request denied

The Trump administration has denied the request submitted by California for a disaster declaration for six destructive wildfires in 2020. A declaration would allow cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal government. The state plans to appeal the decision.

According to data compiled by Wildfire Today from InciWeb and the National Interagency Fire Center, the six fires in the aid request burned a total of 655,637 acres and destroyed at least 1,604 structures.

One of the six, the 341,722-acre Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, is the largest single fire in the state’s recorded history that was not part of a complex or the result of multiple fires burning together. It is still very active and grew for another 4,067 acres Thursday, producing large quantities of smoke affecting much of central California.

The other fires in the aid request were the Slater in northwest California, Bobcat near Los Angeles, El Dorado east of Yucaipa, Valley in San Diego County, and Oak near Mendocino.

From ABC News:

Federal Emergency Management Agency press secretary Lizzie Litzow told ABC News in a statement Friday that “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.”

FEMA, however, did approve four fire management assistance grants in five California counties for wildfires included in the state’s disaster request, according to Litzow.

“These grants will deliver millions of dollars of assistance for emergency expenses and funds to help reduce the risks of future disasters,” she said. .

Under the Fire Management Assistance Grant Program, FEMA provides assistance in the form of grants for equipment, supplies, and personnel costs for the mitigation, management, and control of any fire on public or private forest land.

Mr. Trump has threatened numerous times to stop sending federal money to California, including during a Cabinet meeting October 17, 2018:

So I say to the Governor, or whoever is going to be the Governor of California, better get your act together cause California we’re just not going to continue to pay the kind of money that we’re paying because of fires that should never be to the extent.

The President reaffirmed the issue November 10, 2018 in a tweet:

There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!

Trump tweet Nov 10, 2018 forest fires california

On January 9, 2019 Mr. Trump again addressed the issue in a tweet:

Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forrest (sic) fires that, with proper Forrest (sic) management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives and money!

Trump President forrest
Tweet by President Trump which was deleted Jan. 9, 2019, then reposted with correct spellings.

According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

Climate change is part of the equation that has resulted in longer fire seasons, extremes of heat and cold, drought in some areas, high fire danger, and dry fuels that are very receptive to rapid fire spread.

Creek fire burned gas station
Gas station on the Creek Fire, photo by Daniel R. Patterson, PIO
national guard helicopters creek fire california
Helicopters from the California National Guard mobilized for the Creek Fire. Photo by Daniel R. Patterson, PIO.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

24 thoughts on “Trump administration reverses decision to deny California’s request for fire disaster assistance”

  1. We are all in this together. Fire or other natural disasters, should not be a politicized. We need to step up and help California. This year has been kind to the northern tier, but in past years all of the west has experienced mega-fires. Both California and Oregon need a lot of assistance.

    1. Under the new tax law a land/home owner cannot claim the federal causality loss on federal taxes without the declaration so this hits individuals hard. And it also makes no sense. Maybe CA should not pay federal income tax, business and corporate taxes to the federal treasury. That would make a statement.

    2. I totally agree with you. I fear that when it comes to the approach of the top level of the federal government, the rest of us in the west tend to get lumped in with California. It is insanely dry for this time of year right now in Tonto NF in Arizona and I think that we are in for a brutal main fire season next summer.

      I don’t agree with all of California’s policies and actions but I stand with them as a fellow westerner and as an American. We are all in this together, whether or not we admit it.

  2. “…According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California.”

    “The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.”

    So the WH is not going to pay for any of its cleanup on 46% of its federal land? Lives and structures lost? I hope Republicans affected, (perhaps started any of these fires on private property that spread to Federal land) remember, you are on your own.

    There are still 9,000 firefighters, wildland, structural, and support staff (my husband one of these, on the August Complex) still on these fires, and the Santa Ana’s haven’t even started yet.

    The State of Washington, not CA, is still waiting for a similar request a month ago. All fire survivors may soon be homeless.

    How is this helpful, to be so spiteful, disassociated from the plight of others affected by a natural disaster. Californians, and others in the West may feel now, how those in Puerto Rico have felt the past 2 years. Natural disasters are not political, but this WH has just made it so.

  3. Except for the Creek and North Complex Fires, which were mostly under Federal management jurisdiction, I think it is important to point out that much of the area burned in CA this year was not timbered. Most of what burned was a mosaic of oak woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral and there is virtually no extractive economic value in oak woodlands and chaparral and effective treatment longevity is rather short in these systems. Since fuel breaks don’t work very well if there’s no one there to use them, it is unclear to me what management actions could have been employed to prevent the large wind-driven fires in these vegetation systems, except perhaps for routinely using fire for ecological benefits and home hardening at several orders of magnitude greater than we are already doing.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out and in Arizona we have a lot of the same. The Bush Fire was huge but that was a lot of desert and non big timbered areas.

      What is the best way to cut down on these large fires in areas in non-timbered/transition zone/desert areas? Obviously routine burning is one but we also have a lot of dry years (like this one) where it can’t be done, and a super wet year can create issues too.

    2. Trump made it quite clear what management actions need to be done in comments he made in 2018 “… I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.”
      Cleaning our floors is his stated solution. So get out your rakes California and get busy!
      And while you’re out raking don’t touch any leaves or broken trees ’cause you’ll start a fire. They just go up you see.

    3. The northern end of the August Complex is also in forestlands. Technically the Red Salmon is as well, although it is nearly entirely in the Salmon-Trinity Alps Wilderness so a federal declaration mostly helps with federal funding shortfalls for that fire.

  4. Forrests. Yep, we citizens who have no contrrol overr naturre’s biggerr picturre deserrve Prresident Trrump’s furrorr overr ourr forrests. And those folks in tornado, flood, hurricane and other disaster areas deserve the same, because they lived in those areas, yep.

  5. I agree with Ben’s comments and assessment of what type of fuel burned and what did not.
    Good forest management and harvesting in strategic locations can greatly reduce fire impacts in the “forest zone” or forested ecotype, whether it be privatge, State or public (federal) lands. But, it’s a whole different challenge in the brush/oak woodland type. Large fuelbreaks can be constructed pre-fire, but must be maintained for regrowth and that’s expensive, so who’s going to pay for it?
    As is often stated, “it’s complicated,” and on top of that, it’s expensive. Timber will pay for the costs, but brush and oak woodland types will have to be subsidized by other means.

  6. Are you “red”, negatively impacted by the 2020 Fire Siege and now by this decision? Get the word of this vindictive gesture and your firsthand experience out to people of the same ilk nationwide. Lone Ranger

  7. In a 100 foot area, in most forest there are 50 full grown trees ,with most dying, there should only be two or three trees and they would be healthy trees,,,we don’t thin them out because most folks ,including state and federal workers , say let nature do it,,well folks nature does do it with fire, viruses and bugs,,,county’s lawS are terrible keepers of the forest too,,,,,it is not simple bringing a keeper of the forest,,,,come on humans show some common sense,,,,,

  8. While wild fires burning in Northern California I have wondered why other neighboring states can’t offer some help to keep fires under control without spreading to bigger size. Of course I am no expert in any way when it comes to wildfire or forest fires. Just so sad to see it spreading to larger and the loss of houses, human lives and wild animals as well.

    1. Christina, many states sent equipment, engines, Incident Management teams, and hundreds if not thousands of firefighters to help in California.

      And, this is from the National Situation Report October 16, 2020:

      Two hundred thirty-four Marines from the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1 st Marine Logistics Group, 1 Marine Expeditionary Force based out of Camp Pendleton, California are deployed in support of the August Complex.

      Sixteen fire suppression crews, 15 fire engines and 16 overhead personnel from Canada are supporting fire suppression efforts in northern California.

      Five fire suppression crews and four overhead personnel from Mexico are supporting fire suppression efforts in southern California.

    2. Christina, my husband has been on two fires in CA, from ID. He’s met support personnel and coworkers from FL to AK on both these fires. There are firefighters, and support staff from all over the country that at a moments notice and request that travel to any state in need, every year.

  9. I am astonished at the level of intellectual capability exhibited by so many knowledgeable people, from the top of the pecking order to the bottom.

    Stay safe, well, and happy!

    Oh, yeah–I wonder how federal expenditures compare with, say, a phenomenon that has killed over 200,000 Americans and injured over 8 million?

  10. When bark bettles hit the ponderosa pine belt in 2017 (?) it left millions of dead trees from saplings to mature trees dead in its wake from the south end of the Sequoia NF uyp through Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP, Sierra NF,Yosemite NP, Stanislaus NF, and the El Dorado NF. The only sawmill near the 3 most southern federal land units already had its log storage space full. The next remaining sawmill near Sonora–north of Yosemite–would be a 35 hour drive one way for logs harvested on the Sequoia and Sierra NF salvage sale. Because timber harvesting has been so restricted in recent decades, many mills closed and the remaining mills in all of California lack the capacity to harvest mulitple millions of standing dead trees the bark beetles left behind. By now, most of them have fallen on the ground and provided the fuel that made the Creek Fire the single biggest solo wildfire in history. The scene was tragic enough when I personally traversed my former ranger district in 2018. Today given the vast area involved, including trre-covered segments of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, would make a good background setting for a horror movie. With declining budget support for managing federal public lands the President has no right to blame our Governor and citizens for failing to rake the leaves.

    Maybe Governor Newsome should send in a new request for funds to purchase rakes and leaf blowers for all 40 million Californians to clean up our forests along with funding for the time we would spend doing his job.

    1. Steve, I don’t know the boundaries of your district, but took a random look at a spot that might be:'13.0%22N+119%C2%B018'40.5%22W/@37.8869391,-119.3118082,144m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m6!3m5!1s0x0:0x0!7e2!8m2!3d37.8869383!4d-119.3112614

      I can’t tell the timber type for sure (lodgepole pines?) but I didn’t see, in that view (as close as I could get with Google Satellite), but noted on one standing snag and a LOT of downed trees. Do you happen to know if that’s from logging or natural attrition?

      I took another random look here, 37.030185, -119.208918 and found about a dozen standing dead trees and a few downed ones. Can’t tell the timber type here either (P. ponderosa? Maybe some pencil wood and white fir, maybe white pine? ). Sparse cover, but appears it could support a greater density in some places covered with chaparral (manzanita?); maybe there are seedlings? Fire history? Logging history? They look like bug trees to me, rather than dead from global warming, but I could be wrong.

      Any evidence that drought-stressed trees are more susceptible to beetles/borers? Do the little buggers ever attack trees that are in perfect health? Are lodgepoles resistant? Any pattern to the infestations, like proximity to humans and their firewood?

  11. I somewhat disagree with the majority opinion here. California has too often shaken its fist in the face of the nation and declared it will go its own way. I see no reason why we should hold up the rest of the country to pay for our foolish blundering.

    1. Perhaps California has gone it’s own way with some things, because they’re forward thinking, innovative, and not waiting for the Federal Govt to tell them what to do. California sends more federal dollars to DC, that support many of the southern, less populated states.

    2. Roberto, the state pays its way and then some, unlike most states.
      California’s balance of payments is -$13.7 billion. This means California residents get less in return than they pay for. Iowa by comparison has a balance of payments of $2.5 billion, meaning Iowa residents receive $2.5 billion more in federal services than what they pay in taxes.

      The difference per capita is what the average state resident received in federal services versus what they paid in federal taxes. In California, each resident is sending in $348 more than they get back. In Iowa, each resident is receiving $797 more back in federal services than they paid in taxes.
      You can compare other states here:

    3. When I used to work with Forest Service Washington Office people, I often heard someone remark that California likes to say “But things are different here.” When I worked with Region 5 people, I found out why they say that. Things ARE different there.

      Just for starters, consider this. The USFS is the major agency (out of 5 federal agencies) responsible for fire prevention, firefighting, and fire management in the country. The FS divides the country into Regions; the Pacific Northwest is two states (Region 6), the Southwest (R3) is two states (AZ and NM) plus a slice of Texas and a sliver of Oklahoma. There’s a dozen states in R8 and in the Northeast there are more than 20 states in R9.

      California doesn’t have any other adjacent states with it in Region 5, and in fact has TWO Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs) in ONE state (plus Hawaii and Guam and some other Pacific Islands).

      So Roberto, I don’t know about “shaken its fist in the face of the nation” but I can tell you that things fire-wise are indeed different in California.

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