Gov. Jerry Brown requests national disaster declaration from Obama for state fires

A plane drops fire retardant on a fire along Highway 68 east of Laureles Grade in rural Salinas, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015.

A plane drops fire retardant on a fire along Highway 68 east of Laureles Grade in rural Salinas, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015.

(David Royal / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday asked President Obama for a national disaster declaration that will open the door for federal aid to victims of the Valley and Butte fires.

In his request, Brown called the wildland fires “megafires” that he said “expand quickly and unpredictably, thriving on dead trees, dry vegetation, and wind conditions.”

“Four years of extreme drought conditions have parched our landscapes and created millions of dead trees that have increased California’s vulnerability to these types of fires,” Brown wrote.


In the request, he notes the Valley fire has destroyed 1,238 homes.

“Thousands have been made homeless by the fire ... five local power plants were disabled. Many essential drinking water systems have been completely destroyed ... [and] over 25,000 feet of fiber lines burned, destroying critical infrastructure.... “

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Monday that the Valley fire, which has scorched through nearly 76,000 acres of forest in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, is now the third most destructive in state history. More than 700 structures have been destroyed alongside the 1,200 homes, Cal Fire said.

Three deaths are attributed to the Valley fire so far, Cal Fire said.

At the same time, the slightly smaller Butte fire burning in Amador and Calaveras counties has burned 901 buildings and resulted in two deaths. It’s the seventh most destructive fire, according to state officials.

The Valley fire and Butte fires were 70% contained and 74% contained, respectively, as of Monday, Cal Fire said.

Despite the increasing damage, victims and communities hit hard by the fires still have no promise of federal disaster aid now that the smoke is clearing and temporary shelters are shutting down or relocating.

Damage assessments by state and federal teams of the Valley fire were completed Sunday, which set the groundwork for Monday’s request that could lead to federal assistance with loans and housing.

“It is in the governor’s swim lane,” said John Hamill, the spokesman for FEMA Region IX offices in Oakland.

Of all states, he said, “California has the most capacity” to deal with major fire disasters . But while the state and volunteer organizations, as well as nonprofit disaster responders, such as the American Red Cross, are set up to provide temporary shelter to fire victims, “something more permanent” traditionally comes from FEMA.

Two days after the Valley fire began, FEMA awarded California a grant for assistance in fighting the fire, as well as paying for those giving shelter to residents forced out of their homes and manning road blockades to keep them out.

The federal agency also created a website to host information for disaster victims in anticipation of California seeking federal aid.

“If and when individual assistance money is approved for this disaster, it will be displayed here,” the site said Monday.

Owners of campgrounds in the Cobb area said FEMA employees had already been by surveying whether the parks were suitable for trailer homes that would allow residents in those communities to return at least close to home, and their children to attend those schools still standing.

FEMA Director Craig Fugate is expected in California on Tuesday, signaling that an announcement is imminent.

The Valley fire ignited Sept. 12 and traveled 10 miles in 10 hours, expanding to 50,000 acres in the space of a day.

Teams of firefighters were still crisscrossing the burn area over the weekend, stamping out remaining hotspots and putting out smoldering stumps.

“We’re in the mopping-up stages now, just extinguishing smoke and hotspots,” said Capt. Richard Cordova, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “You’re not going to see any flames.”

In Monterey County, nearly 600 fire personnel fought the fast-moving Tassajara fire, which started Saturday afternoon near Jamesburg. By Sunday evening, it had consumed about 1,100 acres and damaged or destroyed 10 homes and numerous outbuildings, Cal Fire officials said. One person was killed.

One of the ravaged houses belonged to a firefighter.

“Cachagua Fire is saddened to report that one of our firefighters lost his home yesterday,” read a post on the department’s Facebook page. “Ironically, he was out driving a fire engine to help save the lives of other residents when his home was lost.”

Access to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery and retreat center near Carmel Valley, also was affected by the fast-moving fire. The center’s Facebook page said fire crews had been working in the area since dawn Sunday and that everyone there was safe.

“The road, as far as we know, is passable -- but they are only letting people out -- not in,” it said.

For more wildfire news, follow @paigestjohn and @JosephSerna.


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