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Trump administration reverses course on California wildfire aid

The request was for September, when blazes scorched nearly 1.9 million acres, destroyed over 3,300 structures and killed at least 3 people.
Image: Wildfire in California burns through the night north of Los Angeles
Los Angeles County firefighters keep watch on the Bobcat fire in Juniper Hills, Calif., on Sept. 19, 2020.Gene Blevins / Reuters file

The Trump administration reversed course Friday and approved California's emergency aid request for recent wildfires that scorched nearly 1.9 million acres, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and other structures, and killed at least three people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to President Donald Trump last month requesting emergency funds, and a regional administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the White House to declare "a major disaster" in seven counties ravaged by fires in September.

Newsom tweeted Friday that he appealed to Trump during a phone call, and the president approved the disaster declaration after his administration initially rejected it.

"Grateful for his quick response," the governor said.

Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, told the Los Angeles Times that the state did not ask for a specific dollar amount because it is still assessing the 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 his letter, Newsom 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 before Trump reversed the decision that the agency determined "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."

Much of Northern California remains under red-flag warnings as fires continue to burn.

The largest and most destructive blazes this year have occurred since mid-August, with the August Complex fire quickly becoming the biggest in state history. The blaze, which was sparked by a lightning strike, has burned over a million acres and is 77 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

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.