REDDING, Calif. (AP) - President Bush offered federal help and encouragement to some of the 25,000 firefighters working under a blazing sun to contain wildfires that make up the single largest fire event ever recorded in California.
"I always come to make sure the federal government is coordinating closely with the state government," Bush said Thursday . "I know Gov. Schwarzenegger well enough to say that if we weren't, he'd let me know."
Since a huge lightning storm on June 21, more than 2,000 separate fires have ignited across California, ravaging nearly 1,413 square miles. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in 12 counties affected by the wildfires and has called in the California National Guard to help.
"The weather is stable - steady hot and dry inland," said Jason Kirchner, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "Our folks are grinding away on these fires, making progress, but it's coming slow and it's a lot of work."
Bush took an aerial tour with Schwarzenegger to survey fire damage in the 2.1 million-acre Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the largest in California.
Schwarzenegger said 80 percent of the U.S. fire resources for
firefighting are deployed in California.
"I'd like to let the people out here know that we're paying attention in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "We care about you and we'll respond as best as we possibly can."
Bush was shown maps of the fires and then chatted with smoke
jumpers who were mending and repacking parachutes.
"I want to say something to the firefighters. We had the privilege of meeting some of these smoke jumpers. They're unusual people - very courageous, determined and dedicated."
Later, the president was flying south to speak at a political reception in Napa, north of San Francisco, that's raising about $850,000 for the Republican National Committee.
Briefing reporters aboard Air Force One during the flight from Washington, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, said a myriad of federal agencies have been
participating in daily, one-hour video conferences with California
officials to identify ways for the federal government to help the state.
He said a unified command system that FEMA put in place after the ineffective and sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina started working well last year and has helped provide timely federal help to California.
"It's been tough for the residents, I understand that," Paulison said. "But I have to tell you, the firefighting coordination, considering the size of this event, has been some of the best I've seen. I'm very proud of what's happened."
So far, FEMA has obligated more than $154 million to California to pay for firefighting, evacuations, shelter, traffic control, equipment and supplies, Paulison said. Nearly 150 helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines are involved.
Meanwhile, state fire officials reported progress with blazes around the state, with only 38 fires still burning.
Mandatory evacuations were lifted Thursday night in most of the Los Padres National Forest around Big Sur, with only the occupants of a few cabins still ordered to stay away. That fire is 65 percent contained, after having blackened about 200 square miles.
Further north, in Trinity and Shasta counties, mandatory evacuations were still in effect for areas of the rural community of Junction City, and the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The fire there is also 65 percent contained.
About 200 injuries, including deep burns, have been reported. The only firefighter death so far has been attributed to a heart attack, said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman.
A man whose body was found Friday in a burned-out house in rural
Butte County was identified as a 61-year-old who didn't heed evacuation requests. The complex of fires in Butte County was 85
percent contained after burning through 86 square miles and destroying dozens of homes.
Associated Press reporter Juliana Barbassa contributed to this
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)