President George W. Bush issued a major disaster declaration for the state of California yesterday in response to wildfires that continue to ravage Southern California.
Under the declaration, additional federal assistance is made available to those affected by the natural disaster. According to a press release from 35th District Assemblyman Pedro Nava’s office, people affected by the fires will receive temporary housing, repairs, extra insurance coverage for personal property and medical, dental and funeral costs. Additionally, the government will implement six local assistance centers in San Diego, Los Angeles and Pasadena.
According to a press release from 23rd District Congresswoman Lois Capps’ office, after California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein requested an expedited approval for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s declaration proposal, Bush responded within hours. The declaration will provide additional firefighting and domestic resources for the families affected by the fires.
“I am pleased that this much needed federal relief is coming quickly to the aid of the families and communities that have lost so much in these devastating fires,” Capps said. “We continue to pray for the safety of our brave firefighters in harm’s way and hope that these fires will soon be contained without further loss of life or property.”
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. spokesman Eli Iskow said the fires down south should calm within the next few days, and possibly become contained soon.
“Things are going to settle down over the next few days because the weather is calming down,” he said. “That’s the big news.”
In the Santa Barbara area, the Sedgwick Reserve Fire was completely contained on Monday.
As of yesterday evening, 53 Santa Barbara firefighters battled fires in other parts of the state. According to a press release from the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept., firefighters were deployed to the Grass Valley Fire near Lake Arrowhead and the Witch and Harris Fires in San Diego County.
“The deployment of resources out of our area does not impact the ability of the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. to respond to emergency needs within the county and all fire stations are fully staffed and able to respond at 100 percent capacity as normal,” Iskow said.
Even though Santa Barbara residents are directly out of danger from the fires, many UCSB students and community members have relatives and friends who were affected. According to a press release from Nava’s office, over 900,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Southern California.
Fourth-year communication major Rachel Johns, a native of Encinitas, said her family was evacuated and one of her houses remains in danger.
“Both of my parents had to evacuate their houses, and most of my friends from high school are evacuated as well,” she said. “I know that one of my houses is safe, but we don’t know about the other one.”
Johns said her main concern is about the many people who may lose their homes and businesses.
“I’m fine and my family is fine, so I’m glad about that, but I’m worried about other people whose families are in danger,” she said.
One effect of a natural disaster of this magnitude, Johns said, is that communication with family members and friends is difficult.
“When the fires first started, I was scared because I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “The news coverage here is mainly Malibu, so I wasn’t able to get current updates. It has been frustrating because phone lines haven’t been working well.”
According to the press release from Nava’s office, the order of priority for fire suppression is mainly based on how many structures are threatened. Currently, the fires that have priority are the Witch Fire, which threatens about 5,000 structures; the Poomacha Fire, which threatens about 2,000 structures and the Grass Fire, which threatens about 6,000 structures. The Witch and Poomacha Fires are in San Diego County and the Grass Fire is in San Bernardino County.
As of yesterday evening, one death was reported and 38 people were injured.
According to the press release, of the 900,000 people evacuated, 22,195 are currently staying in 51 shelters. In the Southern California region as a whole, 1,436 residences and 104 businesses were destroyed and 551 residences and 80 businesses were damaged.
The press release states that the wildfires burned 426,230 acres, the largest total acreage burned in any single year in California on record.
Although more acreage has burned in the 2007 fires than the 2003 Southern California wildfires, Iskow said there are differences between the two disasters.
“This whole event is similar to what happened in 2003 with the firestorms,” he said. “But there was a much greater loss of life four years ago and I think people forget that.”