Republicans Take Issue With Davis' Criticism

Times Staff Writer

Republican officials on Friday criticized the Davis administration for drawing attention to the fact that the Bush administration had taken six months to deny Gov. Gray Davis' request for emergency money to clear dead and dying trees from Southern California forests now ravaged by wildfires.

The Republican officials noted that the governor had twice rejected a 2002 request from San Bernardino County to declare a state emergency and provide money for tree removal before Davis declared a state emergency last March and began seeking federal emergency assistance.

"It's offensive to me that the Davis administration would be pointing a finger of blame during this crisis we're facing," said Fred Aguiar, a San Bernardino county supervisor.

He was reacting to a Times story on Friday that reported the Bush administration's decision to deny federal emergency assistance to California for tree-clearing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency notified Davis and members of Congress from California on Oct. 24 that it was rejecting the request for $430 million to remove trees left dead and dying by an infestation of tiny bark beetles.

The federal decision was based on two factors, said FEMA spokesman Chad Kolton: California was already receiving more than $40 million in federal assistance from various sources and a federal emergency had never been declared to prevent a potential disaster.

Davis and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday agreed to appeal FEMA's rejection of California's emergency request for assistance, said Davis press secretary Steven Maviglio.

The unprecedented nature of San Bernardino County's request for a preemptive state declaration of emergency was one of the reasons the Davis administration twice rejected the county's appeal for state assistance, said Louis Blumberg, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"I was beating up the Davis administration to put resources in" to clear dead and dying trees, state Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) said Friday in a telephone interview.

"We were pushing on it and they rejected the declaration of emergency," Brulte said.

The governor and administration officials sought to downplay the dispute over the FEMA rejection.

"Let me start by saying that we're not in the blame game here," Davis said in a regularly scheduled telephone briefing on the fires. "Our task is still to put the fires out, and put the victims back on their feet. We have received something on the order of $45 million in various appropriations from the federal government to help us combat the bark beetle. Clearly, we would like more."

Davis has described the fires as the worst in California history. Five Southern California counties have been declared federal disaster areas.

Davis administration officials have expressed disappointment over -- but haven't directly criticized -- FEMA's having taken six months to reject California's request for money to clear diseased trees. Administration officials began pointing to the federal delay after coming under criticism from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who accused Davis of not doing everything possible to enlist military aircraft in the firefighting efforts on Sunday.

Davis and FEMA director Michael Brown -- a Bush appointee -- said Friday that the criticism was baseless.

State fire officials said efforts had begun to address the fire threat in the bark beetle-affected areas of Southern California well before the governor's emergency declaration, despite severe budget constraints.

Southern California prison inmates, for example, were assigned to tree removal efforts, officials said.

"Most importantly, we were pursuing federal funding aggressively, working with the congressional delegation and others," Blumberg said. "We were actively involved in this issue, which is part of the reason that the evacuation went so smoothly at Lake Arrowhead. We knew the situation was serious and we were devoting a lot of resources to it."

San Bernardino County officials began their quest for assistance by declaring a local emergency on April 23, 2002.

Officials asked the Davis administration to declare an emergency, but the state rejected that request three weeks later, on May 14, 2002.

Dallas Jones, director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services, explained the administration's decision in a letter to San Bernardino County officials:

"Based on OES' assessment, we do not believe the current situation in San Bernardino County supports a state of emergency, nor have we been able to identify any other state or federal disaster relief programs that would assist the county at this time."

The Davis administration rejected that request for a second time on Oct. 16, 2002. In a letter to county officials, Jones acknowledged that "there clearly exists a threat of disaster or extreme peril" as a result of the dead trees in the area, but said a state emergency proclamation "would neither trigger any disaster assistance program, nor provide any additional funding to fight the infestation or to remove infected trees from private property."

Davis eventually declared a state emergency in March after the area of dead and dying trees more than doubled from the time of his last rejection of the county's request, Blumberg said.

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