Trump approves California’s wildfire aid request, reversing an earlier rejection

Guardian staff and agency
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Noah Berger/AP</span>
Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

California’s governor on Friday said Donald Trump had reversed his administration’s decision to deny the state’s request for additional federal wildfire aid to clean up the damage from six recent large fires.

“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our major disaster declaration request,” Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “Grateful for his quick response.”

The Trump administration earlier this week had rejected California’s request for a major disaster declaration and the state had indicated it would appeal that decision.

The declaration would allow for cost-sharing for damage, cleanup and rebuilding between the state and federal governments and would activate relief programs led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

California did not ask for a specific dollar amount because damage estimates are not complete, Brian Ferguson of the governor’s office of emergency services told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. Fires included in the request were the Creek fire near Fresno – the largest single blaze in recent California history – the Bobcat fire in Los Angeles county and the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino county.

Denials of relief are rare and Newsom has previously praised the Trump administration for approving aid related to the fires and California‘s struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: ‘We just had to get home’: the Californians who rebuild despite the danger of wildfires

It has been a disastrous wildfire season in California, with more than 8,500 blazes burning more than 6,400 square miles (16,000 sq km) since the start of the year.

Most of this year’s fires have occurred since mid-August, when a freak lightning storm ignited hundreds of fires across northern California. Thirty-one people have died since then, and more than 9,200 buildings have been destroyed. The August complex fire last month expanded beyond 1m acres, elevating it from a mere “megafire” to a new classification, “gigafire”.

On Friday, thousands of people in northern California remained without power after a utility cut off service to prevent powerful winds from damaging equipment and sparking wildfires amid a fall heatwave.

Pacific Gas and Electric had cut power to about 50,000 customers or 100,000 people on Wednesday evening. Restorations began on Thursday afternoon, and by evening PG&E said about 30,000 customers were still in the dark. All electricity was expected to be restored by late Friday after the second round of hot, dry gusts this week moved through the region and raised the risk of fires, PG&E said.

Winds in the Sierra Nevada foothills and San Francisco Bay Area topped 55mph (89km/h) on Friday, and humidity levels plummeted, making for critical fire conditions, said Scott Strenfel, the utility’s senior meteorologist.

“Fuels are drying out, and they’re just very susceptible to any fire ignition, just given these levels of dryness that we’re seeing,” Strenfel said on Thursday.

Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists have said climate change has made California much drier, meaning trees and other plants are more flammable.

Smoke from the huge Creek fire burning since 4 September in the central part of the state was still affecting air quality as far south as Los Angeles, the National Weather Service said. The weather service issued heat advisories through Friday, with temperatures expected to reach triple digits in many parts of the state.

In southern California, a brush fire on Thursday near Redlands triggered a small evacuation as it grew to more than 100 acres (40 hectares). It was about 50% contained.