MORAGA, Calif. — President Trump reversed himself Friday, approving a package of wildfire disaster relief for California hours after officials from his administration had explained why the state should not receive the aid.
“Just got off the phone with President Trump, who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request,” said Governor Gavin Newsom of California in a statement. “Grateful for his quick response.”
The disaster relief aid covers six major wildfires that scorched more than 1.8 million acres of land, destroyed thousands of structures, and caused at least three deaths last month.
The relief package adds to the 68 fire-related aid packages for California that Trump has approved during his tenure: 61 for firefighting, five for disaster relief, and two for support of emergency services.
California has suffered a series of huge fires since August, when freak lightning storms ignited hundreds of blazes, some of which grew to be the largest in modern state history. Subsequent fires in September tore through parts of the Sierra Nevada and wine country north of San Francisco.
Earlier on Friday, Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, said aid for the September fires “was not supported by the relevant data that states must provide for approval, and the president concurred with the FEMA administrator’s recommendation.”
Lizzie Litzow, the agency’s press secretary, said damage assessments of some of the fires that started in early September, which included one of the largest fires in California’s history, “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.”
The initial rejection was unusual but not unprecedented: A 2017 report by the Congressional Research Service found that from 1974 to 2016, presidents denied requests for disaster relief an average of 2.9 times per year during nonelection years and 2.1 times in a year with a presidential election.
Since the enactment in 1953 of a federal disaster relief act, presidents have been authorized to issue declarations that provide states with federal assistance in response to natural and man-made incidents. The requests are judged based on criteria that take into account damage to infrastructure, existing insurance coverage, and a state’s population, among others.
But ultimately the president has the authority to approve or reject a disaster aid request regardless whether the criteria are met.
Although the state did not include a specific dollar amount in its request, Newsom had written that because of a recession induced by the coronavirus pandemic, California went from a projected $5.6 billion budget surplus to a $54.3 billion projected deficit. “California’s economy is suffering in a way we have not seen since the 2009 Great Recession,” he said in the request, which came in the form of a letter to Trump.
Infrastructure damage estimates from the fires had exceeded $229 million, Newsom said, and “the severity and magnitude of these fires continue to cause significant impacts to the state and to the affected local jurisdictions, such that recovery efforts remain beyond the state’s capabilities.”
The handling of wildfires has become highly politicized during Trump’s presidency, aggravating tensions between the conservative administration and one of America’s most liberal states. California has sued the president on dozens of issues ranging from the environment to immigration.
Last year, the president threatened to cut off funding for wildfire relief unless California improved the management of its forests.
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump tweeted in January 2019. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money.”
Trump’s threat at the time alarmed both Republicans and Democrats in the state. Miles Taylor, a former senior Trump administration official who has endorsed Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, said in August that Trump’s reluctance to aid California was overtly political.
“He told us to stop giving money to people whose houses had burned down from a wildfire because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him and that politically it wasn’t a base for him,” Taylor says in a campaign video.
However, many of the largest fires in California over the past four years have ravaged areas that tend to vote Republican. And wildfire experts say Trump’s analysis is problematic because most of California’s forests are on land owned by the federal government and their maintenance largely falls under the responsibility of his administration.
As wildfires have become hotter, more intense and more destructive in recent years, liberals and conservatives in the state have been locked in a debate over the reasons. During a visit to California in September, Trump said, “I don’t think science knows” what is happening when the state’s secretary for natural resources pressed him on the changing climate.
“One camp is saying it’s all climate change-driven, and the other saying it’s all forest management,” said Malcolm North, a forest ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “The reality is that it’s both. I get kind of frustrated at this all-or-nothing type of approach.”
Managing wildfires has become an ongoing task for firefighters, officials, and residents. Since the beginning of the year, more than 8,500 wildfires have burned more than 4.1 million acres in California, according to a summary released Thursday. The total number of statewide deaths related to these fires is at least 31, it said.