Trump administration refuses California wildfire disaster aid
The Trump administration rejected California’s emergency aid declaration for recent wildfires in the state that scorched nearly 1.9 million acres, destroyed over 3,300 homes and other structures, and killed at least three people.
Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to the president last month requesting emergency funds. In it, a regional administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked the White House to declare “a major disaster” in seven counties ravaged by fires in September.
But this week, the Trump administration refused to grant a Major Presidential Disaster Declaration for early September fires, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services told NBC News.
“The state plans to appeal the decision and believes we have a strong case that California’s request meets the federal requirements for approval,” spokesman Brian Ferguson said in a statement.
“Meantime, Cal OES continues to aggressively pursue other available avenues for reimbursement/support to help individuals and communities impacted by these fires rebuild and recover.”
Ferguson told the Los Angeles Times that the state did not ask for a specific dollar amount because they are still assessing damage, but he said such aid could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.
“The true cost won’t be known for months or years afterward,” he said.
California has had a record wildfire year, with over 8,500 blazes, more than 4.1 million acres burned, 31 lives lost and over 9,200 structures destroyed.
In Newsom’s letter, he thanked the president for visiting California last month and for aid the state received for fires that occurred in August. But the governor wrote that the state is “experiencing another siege of fires from early September, which continue to devastate communities throughout the state.”
The blazes caused so much devastation that recovery efforts are “beyond the state’s capabilities,” he wrote.
FEMA’s press secretary, Lizzie Litzow, said in a statement Friday that the agency made damage assessments and determined that “the early September fires were not of such severity and magnitude to exceed the combined capabilities of the state, affected local governments, voluntary agencies and other responding federal agencies.”
Litzow said California has the option to request assistance from the Small Business Administration and from other federal programs for loans that homeowners, renters and businesses could use to them recover.
She also said that if the state finds additional information to support their request for emergency funds, it can appeal the decision.
“FEMA approved four Fire Management Assistance Grants in five counties for wildfires included in the state’s disaster request, allowing reimbursement to state, local governments and other eligible agencies for 75 percent of firefighting, evacuation and sheltering costs,” Litzow said. “These grants will deliver millions of dollars of assistance for emergency expenses and funds to help reduce the risks of future disasters.”
The rejection of the governor’s aid request comes as much of Northern California remains under red-flag warnings as fires continue to burn. Statewide crews are battling 21 wildfires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in an update Thursday.
Officials and experts attribute the state’s increasingly intense wildfire seasons to climate change and a buildup of dead and dried-out vegetation. Trump has been critical of Democratic leaders in California, often blaming them for the fires and downplaying the possible role of climate change.
Minyvonne Burke is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.