THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT IN CONFERENCE CALL ON CALIFORNIA FIRES The Oval Office
9:45 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Hello?
MR. WITT: Good morning, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Have we got James Lee?
MR. WITT: Yes, sir. I have Roger Johnson with me, the Administrator of GSA at the disaster field office here in Pasadena. Secretary Espy is also on, who is at the Oak Grove Fire Camp in Southern California.
SECRETARY ESPY: Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Secretary Espy. How are you?
SECRETARY ESPY: How are you doing, sir? I'm at the Oak Grove Fire Camp near Altadena, California.
MR. WITT: Also, Mr. President, we have Senator Feinstein and Senator Boxer on, and Dick Andrews, California's Director of Emergency Service is here in the disaster field office with Roger and I.
For the first two days, Mr. President, Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein and the State Director and I have toured many of the areas that were destroyed by the wildfires, and witnessed some of the most terrible losses that we have seen in a long time, and talked to some of the bravest and most courageous firefighters and volunteers which have really battled these fires without much rest at all.
Let me give you a brief situation report, and then I will ask Dick Andrews to give you a very brief, up-to-date situation report as of right now on the fires themselves.
There's nearly 700 residences that have been destroyed, several thousand still remain at risk. And there's been over 150,000 acres that have been burned. There's approximately 7,000 firefighters and emergency workers from not only California, but other states, that have been battling 17 fires. Ten of those fires have been contained, and we still have seven fires that are still active. They're scattered all across Southern California.
There is what we feel, like a rough estimate of about $500 million in damages, which probably will rise. The insurance industry has estimated that half of that is about $250 million that are uninsured -- are insured losses. We also have teleregistration open, and a general information hotline that we have opened, 1-800 numbers. And they were opened immediately after you made the disaster declaration.
And I'm pleased to tell you that, today, four of the disaster application centers will be open at 1:00 p.m., and I will be going to each of those application centers personally.
THE PRESIDENT: Good.
MR. WITT: The FEMA staff was in these centers and here at the disaster field office with the State Office of Emergency Services. We're going to be very proactive in our role here. We're going to be providing personalized assistance to the families in helping to restore insurance settlement issues, or whatever we need to do to help them to get their lives back together.
And for the first time, the American Insurance Association will have representatives in all of our disaster application centers to work with disaster victims in helping settle their claims.
THE PRESIDENT: That's good. That's very good.
MR. WITT: And I also should add that Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein are also going to provide staff to help work the disaster application centers as well.
And at this time, Mr. President, I'm going to ask Dick Andrews, the State Director to give you a brief summary of the fire situation right now.
MR. ANDREWS: Good morning, Mr. President. Governor Wilson asked me to send his regards and his appreciation for your personal involvement and support, and the support of the members of your administration in our effort here in California. We have much more favorable weather conditions. The red flag warning that we had in effect from 3:00 p.m. yesterday has been cancelled. We have an on-shore flow, and the temperatures are generally cooler than they have been.
The forecast is for a continuation of these conditions through today, tomorrow, with some possibility of an increase of an offshore flow, in other words the return of the Santa Ana conditions on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. But, since that's a long-term forecast, it's still highly uncertain.
We're still working seven fires, although none of them threaten structures immediately. We believe that if we continue to have the favorable weather conditions, we should be able to achieve much greater containment of these fires, which are essentially now burning wild areas through today and into tomorrow.
We continue to have over 900 engines deployed. About 86 of those are U.S. Forest Service engines, and other engines from State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and from the local government through the OES mutual aid system. So if the weather forecast and the weather conditions hold, we believe that we have a good hand on being able to contain the fires, and that we can continue in coordination with Mr. Witt and FEMA to transition into the recovery effort.
MR. WITT: Do you have any questions of Dick, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: No. I want to say before I go on to Secretary Espy that I have just been terribly impressed by the work of the people who have been out there fighting the fires. I know that we have provided from the federal government a lot of the firefighters. And, of course, there have been the folks here at the local level. But it's been really amazing me just to watch and see how hard they've worked.
As you know, Mack McLarty's been -- who is here with me now -- has been coordinating this from our end, so I've been pretty well briefed all along. I also want to say I'm very pleased that the Insurance Association is going to have people in the disaster assistance area. That's something, as you well know, James Lee, all of us could have used for years. And that's a very, very good sign, and I thank them.
Maybe I should hear from Secretary Espy and Roger Johnson, and Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein, and maybe then I'll see if we've got any questions.
SECRETARY ESPY: Mr. President, this is Mike out here in the Oak Grove Fire Camp. It's the staging area to fight the Kinneloa fire, considered to be the fire right now of the highest priority. We've got 151 structures completely lost out here with a $64-million value loss. But it's looking better.
As you heard this morning, we've got about a 55 percent containment here in this number one area of priority. I can't say enough about the prompt and vigorous and effective work on the part of firefighters from all levels. The Forest Service, all of these local and county firefighters -- it's an incredible level of cooperation.
It seems also, as you've heard, sir, that the Santa Ana winds are a bit more civil today, and all of these fires -- eight of the 17, they've gotten a 90 percent to 100 percent containment on, as you've heard. And the additional fire crews that would be called to bear to this situation are on hold now. So I can say that it's pretty smokey where I am this morning, but it seems as if this situation is under control.
THE PRESIDENT: How much federal land have we lost out there?
SECRETARY ESPY: Oh, gosh. We've got 150,000 or so acres already burned.
THE PRESIDENT: But a lot of it belongs to the federal government, doesn't it?
SECRETARY ESPY: Yes, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Twenty thousand or 30,000 acres, something like that?
SECRETARY ESPY: We've got two major national forests out there, and it's under pretty good attack here. The problem in the future, of course, once the fires have receded, is revegetating and reseeding, making sure that in the Forest Service area, we can do a lot of rehabilitation. And so that's what we've got to turn our attention, once the immediate situation abates.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we should be able to help California with that.
SECRETARY ESPY: Yes, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: We know how to do that.
SECRETARY ESPY: We are. The Soil Conservation Service will be taking the lead in the rehabilitation exercises out here.
THE PRESIDENT: Is Jim Lyons out there with you?
SECRETARY ESPY: Jim Lyons is here. He's been here for a couple of days. Now, he's a little bleary-eyed, he had to get up this morning to do a bunch of things, but --
THE PRESIDENT: He used to be a firefighter, didn't he?
SECRETARY ESPY: Yes, he said he did. We're in a place that looks like a --
THE PRESIDENT: We just thought he ought to have a little continuing education. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY ESPY: That's right. We need those pale guys to get their hands dirty every now and then.
THE PRESIDENT: I really appreciate you, Mike. Thank you.
SECRETARY ESPY: Well, thank you. Thank you. I just can't say enough about the good work. It's very prompt, very vigorous, effective. And, you know, they've been out here from day one, many without sleep, without rest, and it's just incredible to be here. It's great.
THE PRESIDENT: Is Roger Johnson on?
MR. JOHNSON: He's here, Mr. President. Good morning.
THE PRESIDENT: You saved your home, didn't you?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, sir. They saved it.
THE PRESIDENT: Congratulations.
MR. JOHNSON: GSA is working in full cooperation. We've got materials coming from all over the country -- the trailer loads moving out of Stockton, Ft. Worth, with everything in it, from fire hoses, sleeping bags and tents. A whole bunch of people working in tight coordination with James Witt's people.
I just can reiterate from being there personally in Laguna Beach, Mr. President, we lost 350 homes and a lot of our friends' homes. But these people are miraculous. The fire -- I can't tell you how close it came to wiping out a whole village, and maybe thousands of homes, if it weren't for these extraordinary people.
So we're very lucky. Everybody's at work now, fixing it up.
THE PRESIDENT: That's great. How many homes were lost, 350 in Laguna alone?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. About 700 overall, I think. Jumped into an area, Emerald Bay, where we used to live. So there were a lot of our friends there, and I think the home we used to live on is gone as well.
MR. WITT: Mr. President, Dick Andrews, the State Director, and Bill Medigovich, our regional director out here, will be meeting with 12 of the Insurance Associations of California at 11:00 a.m. with the Governor, and we're going to be working to see if there are some special needs in the application centers that come in, then we will advance those special needs with money ourselves through FEMA, and then they can reimburse us after they get their insurance checks.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
Senator Feinstein, Senator Boxer?
SENATOR FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Mr. President. How are you?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm fine.
SENATOR FEINSTEIN: I just want to say thank you very much for caring. And I want to make a couple of quick points, at least as a former mayor who knows something about firefighting, of what I saw. There is an incredible response, within a very short time. Most of them within 35 hours. Some eighty strike teams of five engines a team were moved into the area. That leaves only 13 strike teams up in Northern California.
There are fire units from Sacramento, from -- from San Francisco, from Oakland, from Richmond, from all over the state down there.
THE PRESIDENT: Wow.
SENATOR FEINSTEIN: What I saw in the briefing that we had yesterday at the command center in Riverside is that they are well-organized, they're well-coordinated, and they're wellprioritized. The big threat is that the Santa Ana comes back. They've anticipated the way the wind will move to see that they have engine companies distributed appropriately, and that for me to see was very good.
Now, why has this happened -- and this is important. California has something called "FireScope," which is a unified command structure that very few areas in America have, so that everybody -- state, federal, local -- work under one command auth ority. I think it may be a national model that we should take a good look at. And Mr. Witt and I have resolved to do it, to try to see if this can't apply to the rest of the nation. Because one of the things that seems to be happening is, probability of earthquakes are increasing. Just exactly a year ago, we lost 3,000 homes in a firestorm outside of Oakland, California. And the weather patterns are changing.
So the real need to have unified commands in the future that can mobilize and prioritize resources I think is extraordinarily important.
Let me make one other point. FEMA is not well thought of in California because of the Loma Prieta and the Los Angeles riot response. I really believe it is a new FEMA now. And I think that James Witt is putting in place those things that are necessary to provide consistent and a long-term response. Because people in fire are just wiped out. They lose everything -- everything except whatever they leave the fire with; generally the clothes on their back. And the need to get them those living assistance checks within the 10 days -- and I think as Mr. Witt said, the need to encourage the private insurance industry to respond promptly so that people get help is really -- these are really the things that government can do, and do well, to be able to help people.
I just want to say thank you to the fire people and thank you, FEMA. And, thank you, Mr. President, for caring.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you, Senator.
James Lee, I think you and Mike --
SENATOR BOXER: Do you have room for one more senator?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm going to call in just a minute. I just wanted to say to James Lee and Mike Espy, I think you ought to make a recommendation to me on what we should do on this unified command issue after you get back.
Senator Boxer, the floor is yours.
SENATOR BOXER: Thank you, Mr. President, so much. This is very special for us in California to know that you are personally involved. When you see the devastation, it looks horrible on CNN. When you see it when you're standing there, it's extraordinary. It kind of looks like a volcano went through. There's literally nothing left. Shells of cars, and maybe some fireplaces. And so, some people have lost every single thing -- all their hopes and dreams.
The thing is, we need to stick with them after the cameras are gone, as you know, because picking up the pieces takes a while. And so I would urge that we all do that, and I want to add my voice to everything that's been said, so I will be brief.
I've been an elected official for a long time, and I've gone through five disasters as an elected official, and I have never seen a FEMA that was so organized and aggressive, and human. And you have to be very proud of James Lee Witt for what he is doing. And it's his force of his personality, and I have to say the cooperation at the state is showing with FEMA. It's just a real breakthrough. And right up and down the line, the firefighters -- when I went to the Red Cross Center, I think that is going to stick with me more than anything. The seniors at the Dana Point Red Cross Center were so disoriented. And I think what it's crying out for is simplicity, the one-stop shop, the ability to help them at one place. And, of course, that's what James Lee is doing. So, my deepest, deepest thanks to you, and we'll keep you informed and work with you until we've picked up all the pieces.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator. I want to thank both the Senators. And, Dick Andrews, I thank you, and through you -- Governor Wilson -- you tell him that if there's anything else we can do, you just pick up the phone and call.
And, to Roger Johnson and Secretary Espy and to James Lee Witt, I thank you all for your quick response, and I can't wait to talk to you some more in person after the fire dies down some more and we make sure that we don't forget them when the fire's gone. We'll be there for the follow-up.
I thank you all, and I hope you have a good day and keep those winds away out there.
Thank you. Good-bye.
Q Are you going to California?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know that yet. We're going to monitor the winds today. That's the big issue. I don't want to be in the way out there. They've got a lot of work to do. The thing, I think, is pretty well in hand now if they don't have a resurgence of the winds. So we're all basically going to -- it's quite early there, it's still 7:00 a.m. in the morning. And we're just going to spend the next four or five hours waiting for the weather reports.
I've got to do the Radio Address, folks.
END10:00 A.M. EDT