Trump administration reverses decision to deny California fire disaster aid

SAN FRANCISCO -- President Donald Trump's administration is reversing course on its decision to reject California's request for disaster relief funds in the wake of deadly and destructive fires that have scorched the state.

After originally saying the federal government would not declare a major disaster, the administration changed its tune Friday.

What does this mean for California's wildfire recovery and what comes next? Here's what you need to know.

What is California requesting aid for?


Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the federal government for a major disaster declaration on Sep. 28, which if granted would allow the state and the federal governments to share the burden of paying for damage, cleanup and rebuilding. Disaster declarations also activate relief programs led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This round of aid was requested for the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties, the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles County, the Oak Fire in Mendocino County, the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County, the Valley Fire in San Diego County and the Slater Fire in Siskiyou County.

In August, California secured federal aid to help pay for the several Lightning Complex Fires burning in Lake, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo counties, which made the Trump administration's recent denial even more surprising. Denials for disaster relief funds are rare, reports the Associated Press, leaving many wondering what went wrong.

Why did the Trump administration originally reject California's request?



The Trump administration says it's because Gov. Newsom didn't offer a precise enough damage estimate. But because the fires are still burning, damage estimates are still being finalized.

White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere released the following statement:

"This summer, President Trump quickly approved wildfire relief for the State of California that was supported by damage estimates. In fact, this week the President made additional disaster assistance available to California by authorizing an increase in the level of Federal funding to 100% for debris removal and emergency protective measures undertaken as a result of the wildfires, beginning August 14, 2020, and continuing. The more recent and separate California submission was not supported by the relevant data that States must provide for approval and the President concurred with the FEMA Administrator's recommendation."

Why did the Trump administration change its mind?


Though the reasoning on the change isn't yet clear, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said Friday that the president was "committed to reverse FEMA's decision to deny the request" and a "Presidential Disaster Declaration is imminent and help is on the way."



"Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response," said Gov. Newsom in a statement Friday afternoon.

Why does California need the help?


California is already in a very tight spot when it comes to its finances, after the coronavirus pandemic turned its budget surplus into a $50 billion budget deficit. Fighting record-breaking wildfires -- and trying to prevent them -- are costly endeavors. It's not clear where the state would find that money in its budget without federal aid.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2020 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.