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Bush declares major fire disaster
President Bush declared a major disaster today in California, which allows people affected by the fires to begin to receive federal grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.
Bush met this morning at the White House with his Cabinet and afterward told reporters: "I believe the effort is well coordinated. I know we're getting the manpower and assets on the ground that have been requested by the state and local authorities."
Speaking in the Cabinet Room, the president said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told him that the state was receiving the federal help it needed. "I assured him that if he needs anything, then, great, we'll provide it, we'll do so," he said.
Saying they have learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, White House officials have tried to quickly respond to the wildfire emergency in Southern California through a rapid deployment of federal support and a presidential visit.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arrived in the state Tuesday. Bush canceled an appearance at a fundraiser in St. Louis to fly to California on Thursday. The White House has not yet announced his schedule for the trip.
Bush expressed regret that he could do nothing to control the winds, which have fanned the fires. "I want the people in Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them," he said. "We're concerned about their safety, we're concerned about their property, and we offer our prayers and hopes that all will turn out fine in the end."
The fires have stoked calls in Washington to do more to prevent such conflagrations.
On Tuesday, the Senate's leading Democrat -- Harry Reid of Nevada -- said the administration has for years shortchanged funding for prevention efforts to remove the dead trees and shrubbery that provide the fuel for the fast moving blazes.
Meanwhile, one of the California delegation's most influential members -- Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) -- urged Congress to quickly provide $1 billion in emergency funding to help pay for firefighting and disaster relief.
The developments in the nation's capital came even before the political and budgetary fallout from the disaster could be calculated.
"There were lessons learned out of Katrina, and I think we are applying some of those, especially when it comes to early communication between our staff here at the federal level and then the governor's staff," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday.
The 2005 hurricane devastated New Orleans, and the disjointed federal response was widely criticized. Now, federal agencies ranging from the Defense Department to the U.S. Forest Service have quickly mobilized. FEMA has been working in close coordination with state officials throughout the emergency. The military is making available aerial tankers and other heavy-duty firefighting gear, along with crews.
But Reid suggested that the administration failed to heed the lessons of the 2003 wildfires that destroyed some of the same areas of San Diego County that are burning again.
After those fires, Congress authorized up to $760 million a year for "fuel reduction" efforts to clear away dead trees and other combustible material. But only about two-thirds of that -- about $500 million -- has been provided through the annual budgetary negotiations between the White House and Congress, congressional aides said.
"We have fought for years during this Bush administration to have money for wildfire suppression," Reid said. "It takes effort to prepare the landscape so that these fires don't burn the way they have been....That's what wildfire suppression legislation and [federal] money is all about."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), who chairs a key funding subcommittee, said, "There is no question that fuel reduction has been under-funded. ... In virtually every session, we've had to fight for additional money ... and I'm prepared to fight again."
Feinstein also told the Senate that the disaster will be a critical test for FEMA. The biggest challenge could well come after the fires are put out, when the agency will steer residents and business owners to federal programs that can help them rebuild.
While Lewis did not criticize the administration, he agreed that the government needs to put a higher priority on prevention. "When we have disasters of this size, the dollars seem to flow on call, but it is more difficult getting continuing dollars to manage the forests long-term," Lewis said in a floor speech. "We need to continue to address those long-term needs and not allow the current crisis to reduce that effort."
The federal funds for clearing away dead trees are meant to be spent on federal property, and most of the fires this time are on private and state lands. Nonetheless, Congress may decide in the future to provide some support for state and local efforts.
The president's declaration of a major disaster makes federal funding available to people in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura. Money will also be available to the state, local governments and private nonprofit organizations for debris removal and emergency protective measures.
Separately, Pentagon officials said they are trying to anticipate the needs of California and provide doctors, helicopters, firefighting equipment -- even a Marine battalion.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau, said Tuesday that the war in Iraq has not diminished the Guard's ability to assist fire-fighters.
Although the California guard currently has 3,000 soldiers deployed overseas, "We were very, very careful to not take capabilities away from the state of California that might be useful in fighting forest fires," Blum said.
About 1,500 California National Guard members have been activated to assist with the fires, and another 17,000 are available, if needed, officials said.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.