Gov. Newsom requests disaster declaration in response to CA wildfires

Photo of Berkeley during fire season
Lisi Ludwig/File
In response to the wildfire crisis that has swept several California counties, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration. State and federal governments are working together to improve fire resilience across California's landscape.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a request Monday for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration in response to the recent wildfire crisis in California counties.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration is an appeal for federal assistance in regions where the disaster exceeds local levels and capabilities. If Newsom’s request is approved by President Joe Biden, the declaration will direct federal aid, such as housing assistance and medical services, toward the California wildfires, according to a press release from Newsom’s office.

“The request includes public assistance to help state, tribal and local governments with ongoing emergency response and recovery costs,” the press release reads. “The request also includes hazard mitigation, which helps state and local governments reduce the risks and impacts of future disasters.”

It is likely that Biden will choose to honor the request from Newsom, according to J. Keith Gilless, dean emeritus of the UC Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources, whose research specializes in forest management and fire control. Since the state and federal governments have been actively analyzing and discussing the situation, the request should not take too long to be granted, Gilless added.

However, the scope of the wildfire crisis is not just limited to California, according to Gilless. The Biden administration has taken strong interest in wildfire threats among Western states.

“It’s not just a California problem and the federal government recognizes that,” Gilless said. “Oregon and Washington are not too different. We are all facing the same problems.”

The state and federal governments have worked together to assist natural wildfires, Gilless stated. They have dedicated an “ambitious” amount of vegetation management in high-fire areas.

Gilless added that these joint contributions on both state and federal levels are helping to improve fire resilience in the landscape, especially given its ambiguous land ownership boundaries.

“You refer to California as being a checkerboard pattern because its sections of land alternating between public and private,” Gilless said. “You have to work around who owns what land.”

In addition to the request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, the state of California has offered financial support through the California Disaster Assistance Act. The state has also secured Fire Management Assistance Grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to support specific fires, according to the press release. 

Additionally, Newsom declared a state of emergency in several California counties and issued an executive order to bolster wildfire recovery response.

“You can think of this as a federal disaster,” Gilless said. “(The declaration) is a way for the states to say this isn’t business as usual. This isn’t something our fire departments can handle. We need help.”

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @ashleyttsai.