President to Tour Southern California To Gauge Fire Efforts

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

President Bush embarks this morning on a tour of the wildfires ravaging California to showcase his administration's ability to respond better to natural disasters than it did after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. Yesterday, he pronounced the federal government's actions "well-coordinated" after a Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis.

Federal and state emergency managers say, however, that the two disasters can hardly be compared. Katrina's floods and winds wreaked havoc on a far larger scale. California's local responders lead the nation in training and coordination, while Louisiana's rank near the bottom. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency's responsibilities for battling wildfires are far more limited than its role in dealing with hurricane damage.

"FEMA is not getting a real test in putting direct federal assets on the ground," said George W. Foresman, undersecretary of preparedness for the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 and 2006.

By contrast, even some Democrats say Bush has mastered the political response to the wildfires, a not-insignificant achievement that both fosters hope from the victims and spurs close coordination with local officials, starting with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

The White House announced a presidential emergency declaration for California within minutes of receiving the final paperwork from FEMA about 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. That morning, he deployed FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to the state. He followed up yesterday by issuing a more comprehensive disaster declaration and by presiding at a national emergency video teleconference and Cabinet meeting.

"Certainly from a political point of view, they're taking pretty quick action here," said former Clinton chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, a former California congressman who testified to a 2006 state commission on catastrophe preparedness.

Mark Ghilarducci, a former senior federal and California emergency management official who now works as vice president of a consulting firm led by Clinton FEMA director James Lee Witt, said he hopes that Bush will leave a legacy like that of his father, George H.W. Bush. The senior Bush oversaw a response to Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992 that was heavily criticized but led to changes under his successor.

"I'm happy to see they've taken a page out of James Lee Witt's playbook," Ghilarducci said. "I hope a page has been turned and all future responses are as good."

Still, the relatively smooth response to this season's devastating wildfires says more about California's efforts over the years than the federal government's, several veteran federal, state and local emergency managers said.

While Katrina's vast floods and winds covered an area the size of Britain at 90,000 square miles, fires in seven California counties blackened about 700 square miles as of yesterday -- a footprint one-third smaller than wildfires burned there four years ago. The number of homes destroyed was about 1 percent of the 300,000 made uninhabitable by Katrina, and financial losses were less than 2 percent, based on initial estimates, comparable to the damage caused by wildfires in Oakland in 1991 and in Southern California in 2003.

Local officials have choreographed the largest evacuation in Golden State history, with estimates of the people instructed to leave their homes at 351,000. But many began returning yesterday. Katrina prompted the evacuation of 1.1 million people, and 500,000 were still displaced after four months.

As White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said, "These fires are not the same disaster that we had in Katrina."

FEMA and DHS also have a much more limited role in responding to wildfires.

Every year, authorities from local fire departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management work at a coordination center in Riverside, Calif., where they triage calls for firefighters, trucks and aircraft. Meanwhile, the governor's emergency services office prioritizes help from outside the state.

"FEMA really historically is not a player in that at all," said Richard A. Andrews, interim director of California's Office of Homeland Security in 2004 and 2005 and head of the state Office of Emergency Services from 1991 to 1998. "They basically are there to help pay the bills afterward."

In fact, Washington has followed California's lead. California's system for managing large fires was the model for measures adopted by the federal government after the 2001 terrorist attacks to help local, state and federal agencies jointly manage national emergencies and to share aid.

In that sense, California is both cursed and blessed by its frequent exposure to fires, floods, landslides and earthquakes, which increase training and funding for local emergency responders. San Diego, for example, installed a "reverse 911" phone system after the 2001 attacks that was used this week to automatically dial warnings to more than 350,000 homes in evacuation areas.

More broadly, state and local coordination, communication and planning for fires and other events are well advanced, built on decades of experience sharpened by the onset of dry inland winds each fall. "There is no hazard that is better practiced and experienced more frequently than the fire hazard in the state of California," agreed Dennis Mileti, professor and director emeritus of the University of Colorado at Boulder's Natural Hazards Center. He said that the response this week "is as good as it gets."

There is one area in which FEMA is indispensable: money.

Deborah Steffen, who retired last year as director of San Diego County's Office of Emergency Services and who served for more than a decade as a regional administrator with the state Office of Emergency Services, said FEMA's biggest role is in helping people and communities recover from disasters. But haggling over rebuilding payments is often bitterly disputed.

"The response ends up looking easy compared to the recovery, which goes on years and years," she said.

Yesterday, however, Bush delivered a simpler message: "I want the people in Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them. . . . They can rest assured that the federal government will do everything we can to help put out these fires."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company