SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Fueled by extreme heat and dry, windy conditions, wildfires ravaged California in September, blazing through almost 1.9 million acres, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and killing at least three people. One wildfire, the Creek Fire, became the largest single inferno in California history and grew so fierce it spun up fire tornadoes with 125 mph winds.
On Friday, the request for federal assistance to help pay for the recovery from a half dozen of those fires spun up a tornado of its own. Like the proverbial tempest, the storm over the money had been contained in a tea pot by the day’s end.
The day began with news that the Trump administration had refused to grant California’s emergency declaration that would make hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding available for areas devastated by the Creek Fire and five others. Federal officials said the most recent application did not meet the criteria for federal relief.
But President Donald Trump reversed the decision a few hours later after a direct appeal from Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in a midday phone call. The declaration was approved, the hand-wringing over.
“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request,” Newsom wrote in a statement Friday afternoon. “Grateful for his quick response.”
The whiplash over the federal emergency funds - which Trump has previously threatened to withhold but never has - came during the final weeks of a presidential campaign during which the president has often held California up as the prime example of liberal irresponsibility. Trump lost the nation’s most-populous state - where Republican voter registration has dropped below those who have not declared a party - by 30 percentage points in the 2016 election.
Newsom, who took office in January 2019, has personally kept his criticism of the Trump administration on a lower key than many of the state’s other top Democrats. His decision to do so has been largely pragmatic, hoping that in just such moments as these Trump would approve federal assistance in recovering from a monumental disaster.
The governor followed that same tack Friday morning, tweeting only that “we are going to appeal this” decision to withhold the assistance. A decision on such an appeal - essentially a request for the president to reconsider his denial - typically would have come after the Nov. 3 election. In this case, it came within hours.
Trump has approved California’s disaster relief requests in the past, albeit sometimes with some public grumbling.
But Trump is counting now on excitement among and a strong turnout from his conservative base to secure a second term, and California’s stance on climate change, immigration, race and other issues has made the state a frequent political target for the president and his supporters. California has sued the administration 100 times.
Earlier this week, Trump tweeted a typical attack on the Golden State: “People are fleeing California. Taxes too high, Crime too high, Brownouts too many, Lockdowns too severe. VOTE FOR TRUMP, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU HAVE TO LOSE!!!” The tweet received 261,500 “likes.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement about the rejection of the Creek Fire emergency declaration that the president this summer approved wildfire relief for California that was supported by damage estimates and this week made additional disaster assistance available to the state by authorizing federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures taken as a result of the wildfires since Aug. 14.
“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,” Deere said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Newsom sent a request for emergency funds to Trump on Sept. 28 in a letter that outlined the extraordinary scope of the wildfires and thanked the president for visiting the state to tour the damage.
As Newsom noted, the fires ignited in early September in a state already ravaged by a historic wildfire season that in total has scorched more than 4.1 million acres and killed 31 people. As high winds whipped through areas gripped by drought and a heat wave, small fires quickly burst into new disasters, the dry brush and brittle trees acting as tinder.
The largest, the Creek Fire, started Sept. 4 in Madera and Fresno counties in central California. It is now 58 percent contained, after burning through a record 340,000-plus acres as of early Friday. More than 24,000 people have had to flee its path, including hundreds of campers who had to be airlifted to safety in a daring military rescue.
The letter details five other fires that each ate up hundreds of thousands of acres and hundreds of buildings.
In one case, a series of smaller fires that sparked up in several counties north of San Francisco merged to form what is known as the August Complex, which has now burned more than 1 million acres. It marks the first time in state history that figure has been exceeded.
Newsom did not specify how much federal aid the state needs because the total damage is still being assessed. But initial estimates projected damages resulting from the Creek Fire alone at $200 million.
California is facing a budget deficit running into the tens of billions of dollars due to the coronavirus-caused economic shutdown, and the state is counting on federal money in a number of ways to close that hole.
“Californians are exhausted,” he wrote in the letter. “Many of the counties impacted by these wildfires are still recovering from previous devastating wildfires, storms and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
One focus of Trump’s criticism of California over the years has been its approach to wildfire preparedness.
Last November, Trump accused Newsom of doing a “terrible job” of managing forests, tweeting, “Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more.”
Most scientists, though, say a warming climate is the most significant factor driving the bigger wildfires. About 60 percent of California’s forests are managed by the federal government.
As the debate over federal assistance unfolded, about 30,000 residents of the Bay Area were without power after the publicly traded utility Pacific Gas and Electric intentionally shut off the electricity to reduce wildfire risks. More than 20 fires are burning across the state.