(TNS) - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen became the first Cabinet-level official in the Trump administration to tour Northern California’s wildfire devastation, saying Wednesday that the White House would fully back recovery efforts.
Nielsen’s visit to Santa Rosa didn’t come with any new financial commitments, but it marked a show of support for California as the state muscles for a share of billions of dollars in federal aid being earmarked for states and U.S. territories devastated by hurricanes and other disasters in 2017.
Nielsen’s department oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been working with state and local officials to find shelter for fire victims and clear remnants of the more than 8,000 buildings that burned last year. Nielsen said crews have so far removed debris weighing nearly as much as the Golden Gate Bridge.
“The fires left many Californians with the daunting task of recovery,” she said at a news conference in the fire-ravaged Coffey Park neighborhood. “We will be here with arms locked with state and community officials.”
Before the briefing, Nielsen toured the badly burned Fountaingrove neighborhood and met privately with a handful of local leaders.
“It was very important for me to come here and see for myself what the needs are,” she said.
A day earlier, Nielsen surveyed the burn zone of the Thomas Fire, which continues to smolder in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties after becoming the state’s largest wildfire ever at 282,000 acres. More than 1,000 buildings have burned.
The stop in Southern California coincided with the Trump administration’s disaster declaration for the area, which frees up federal funds for reducing hazards related to the fire and guarantees reimbursement for at least some portion of the recovery.
The administration issued a similar declaration for Northern California last year after fires in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and other counties burned close to 250,000 acres, killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,500 homes. State officials estimate that insured damage tops $9 billion.
California’s congressional Democrats have been critical of President Trump for not acting more quickly to ensure wildfire relief. An $81 billion disaster bill that would provide housing and recovery aid to California as well as hurricane-wracked Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was approved by the House last month but has stalled in the Senate.
Senate leaders have not been able to agree on how to fund the legislation, which would lift last year’s disaster spending to a staggering $133 billion. The Senate is expected to revisit the bill this month.
Nielsen said her agency has been in constant communication with Gov. Jerry Brown about funding issues. The director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, who toured Santa Rosa with Nielsen on Wednesday, said he was pleased that the secretary was engaged with California’s recovery.
“This effort has really been a one-team, one-fight effort,” said Mark Ghilarducci.
Kurtis Alexander is a Chronicle Staff Writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kurtisalexander
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