July 18, 2008

Bush Vows Not to Leave California Stranded As Firefighting Costs Strain Budget

By Peter Hecht, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 18--President Bush took a helicopter tour of charred forests above Shasta Lake on Thursday and vowed to do the "best ... we possibly can" in directing federal assistance to help California respond to devastating wildfires.

With nearly 2,000 lightning fires since mid-June devouring more than 880,000 acres and burning a hole in the state budget, Bush promised not to leave California stranded.

Federal disaster officials to date have pledged $31 million in direct reimbursements for California's firefighting costs, and the White House said Thursday that a total of $154 million in aid is on the way. The state has deployed more than 2,000 firefighters and support personnel while running up costs of more than $100 million since mid-June. Federal firefighting costs have surpassed $220 million.

The most recent fires come on the heels of the costliest fiscal year in California history. Major blazes near San Diego, Lake Tahoe and elsewhere last year helped push 2007-2008 state firefighting costs past $390 million, more than $310 million more than the state had budgeted.

"I would like to just let the people out here know that we're paying attention to you in Washington, D.C.," Bush said after Air Force One touched down at Redding Municipal Airport.

The latest fires are exhausting firefighters and stretching resources from Butte County to Santa Barbara and from Big Sur to Whiskeytown.

"We make it very clear that we are very good at fighting fires," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has requested federal equipment and manpower to help battle blazes, remove debris and provide shelter for stranded residents in 11 counties.

"We can fight 20, 30 fires at the same time," he added. "But when you hear that there are 2,000 fires at one given time, that's a little bit too much for us."

Before getting an aerial tour of the fires with Schwarzenegger and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Bush visited Redding-based members of the U.S. Forest Service "smoke jumpers."

More than 40 crew members were repairing parachutes and packing gear to drop out of the skies to cut brush to contain fires.

"I'm proud of ya," Bush said as he made small talk and shook hands.

When one smoke jumper, John Casey, 38, told the president he has made more than 200 fire jumps in his career, Bush quipped: "I couldn't handle it."

The president later told reporters: "These are unusual people who are very courageous, determined and dedicated. ... I want to thank them for their courage."

When lightning storms set off hundreds of wildfires in California in mid-June, Redding smoke jump squad leader Greg Fashano said he was astonished by what he saw from the air.

"There were little fires popping up as far as your eyes could see," said Fashano, who made two jumps and also directed other crews parachuting to fight the flames. "It was just amazing, the amount of fires all at once. And over the next days, it got really big."

As the Redding smoke jumpers attacked fires burning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, they were joined by another 100 Forest Service jumpers who were rushed in from Montana, Oregon, Idaho and Washington.

Feinstein, who accompanied the president on Air Force One along with Republican Reps. John Doolittle of Roseville and Wally Herger of Chico, has asked for an emergency appropriation of $610 million for the immediate needs of federal firefighters battling wildfires in California and elsewhere.

Feinstein, who met with Bush and officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security, is also seeking another $300 million for long-term fire prevention, including stationing more federal aircraft and manpower in California.

"I would say I'm optimistic at this stage," Feinstein said in an interview after discussing the fires with Bush. "I talked to the president. I think he understands."

Bush was briefed by officials including Ruben Grijalva, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and California National Guard Gen. William Wade.

After flying over jagged mountains scorched by the Motion fire near Shasta Lake, Bush turned to Schwarzenegger to say he knows California needs help to meet its rising needs.

"I always come to make sure that the federal government is coordinating closely with state government," Bush said. "I know Gov. Schwarzenegger well enough to tell you that if we weren't, he'd let me know."


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