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Bush Views Fire Devastation in N. Calif.

President Reassures State Residents After Helicopter Tour With Schwarzenegger

By Dan Eggen

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, July 18, 2008; A02

REDDING, Calif., July 17 -- President Bush joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday for a helicopter tour over the charred landscape of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, surveying a small part of the devastation left behind by the largest single "fire event" in California history.

Flying aboard the Marine One presidential helicopter, Bush and his guests hovered amid hazy skies and columns of smoke from fire-ravaged areas around Mount Shasta and nearby Whiskeytown Lake. Afterward, he reassured Californians that federal aid for recovery from the fires will continue.

More than 2,000 fires in California have consumed more than 1,300 square miles since June 21 -- making it the largest combined fire event in state history. Yet only three firefighters and fewer than 100 homes have been lost, in part because the fires have been concentrated in wilderness and forest areas with relatively small human populations, federal and state officials said.

Bush's trip to Northern California provides another example of his keen attention to natural disasters since Hurricane Katrina, when his political fortunes tumbled after a slow and bungled response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others.

"I always come to make sure that the federal government is coordinating closely with the state government," Bush told reporters in Redding after the helicopter tour.

"I know Governor Schwarzenegger well enough to tell you that if we weren't, he'd let me know," Bush added. Schwarzenegger said he is pleased with the federal response.

The joint appearance came just days after the Republican governor criticized the Bush administration for its environmental policies. "This administration did not believe in global warming," Schwarzenegger told ABC News, adding that any claims of progress by Bush were probably "bogus."

Neither man addressed the rift Thursday. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters aboard Air Force One that Schwarzenegger "is a colorful and opinionated leader who is not shy about voicing his opinion."

"We may have different approaches on the issue of climate change . . . but here we're all coming together," Stanzel said of the response to the wildfires. A prominent Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), also went with Bush on the wildfires tour.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, who accompanied Bush on the trip, told reporters it has been an unusually busy year for federal emergency management officials, with 30 disaster declarations in 18 states, including devastating flooding in Iowa and a spate of tornadoes in the Midwest.

"We had the tornadoes, floods and wildfires back-to-back, and now it's hurricane season," Paulison said.

The California fires took hold after several days of dry lightning strikes in late June, and more than 25,000 firefighters have joined in battling blazes across the state. Mark E. Rey, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, said state and federal authorities think they have "turned a corner" in recent days in reducing and containing the fires.

Rey and other administration officials in part credit the U.S. Forest Service's controversial practice of "thinning" forests for limiting the potential threat to life and property. Officials also acknowledge that most of the areas ravaged by fires this summer are far more sparsely populated than in Southern California, where more than 3,000 homes were lost to fires last fall.

The helicopter tour journeyed north of Redding, into a fire area dubbed "Motion" by fire officials. Boats plied Lake Shasta even as smoke rose from the mountains nearby. Visibility was near zero in some spots, and spindly remnants of pine clung to the slopes.

After landing back at Redding Municipal Airport, Bush sought to assure Californians that federal aid, now at about $154 million, will continue. "We're paying attention in Washington," he said. "We care about you."

After the wildfires visit, Bush attended a GOP fundraiser in Napa, Calif. He will attend GOP fundraisers in Arizona and Texas on Friday before arriving for a weekend at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.

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