President declares disaster over deadly California wildfire


President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared a major disaster in California over a wildfire that destroyed more than 1,000 buildings as fierce winds whipped it through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last month.

The declaration makes federal funding available to state and local governments and some nonprofit organizations for emergency work in those counties and statewide for work to reduce hazards related to the fire, according to a White House statement.

The Thomas fire that began on Dec. 4 is the largest recorded in the state. It was 92 percent contained on Tuesday. Firefighters were still putting out hot spots and smoldering areas.

The fire covered more than 440 square miles (1,140 sq. kilometers), killed two people, destroyed entire neighborhoods, threatened coastal foothill communities, ravaged wilderness areas and cast a pall of smoke that shuttered businesses in downtown Santa Barbara.

Firefighting costs alone have approached $200 million.

The disaster declaration means the federal government may cover 75 percent of those costs and the costs of recovering from the blaze, such as removing vast amounts of debris in fire-denuded areas that could be hit with flash floods and debris flows if winter rains arrive.

After a flight over the devastated area on Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen said the president's declaration will help with rebuilding from the fire, which burned more than 700 homes along with other buildings.

"Seeing the devastation, I'm deeply moved," she said. "My heart goes out to the survivors. We met with some of them today."

On Wednesday, she was expected to visit Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. Wildfires in October swept through Sonoma, Napa and other counties in and around wine country, killing 44 people and destroying more than 5,000 homes. Insured damages alone topped $9 billion.

Trump already approved a major disaster declaration for California for that wildfire.

Gov. Jerry Brown requested the same declaration last month for San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as devastating fires swept the state.

"It is expected many of the survivors in the impacted communities will have no insurance coverage or be underinsured," Brown's request said. "Even for those survivors who have insurance coverage, major challenges remain to obtain temporary housing and attempt to rebuild their lives."

Although Tuesday's declaration only covers Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, "damage assessments are continuing in other areas, and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after the assessments are fully completed," the White House statement said.


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