SACRAMENTO — The Bush administration took six months to evaluate Gov. Gray Davis' emergency request last spring for $430 million to clear dead trees from fire-prone areas of Southern California.
The request was finally denied Oct. 24, only hours before wildfires roared out of control in what has become the largest fire disaster in California history.
Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), a leader in the effort to get federal assistance for fire prevention, questioned Thursday why the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not rule sooner.
"FEMA's decision was wrong," Bono said. "The timing couldn't have been worse.... We knew this disaster was going to happen with certainty. It was only a matter of when, and we were trying to beat the clock with removing the dead trees."
If Davis had received the denial earlier, Bono said, he would have had time to wage an appeal.
FEMA spokesman Chad Kolton said the agency denied Davis' request for an emergency declaration because California was already receiving more than $40 million from the departments of Agriculture and Interior to deal with a bark beetle infestation that has damaged thousands of acres of forest in the San Bernardino Mountains.
"Federal agencies were already engaged in a very substantive way," Kolton said. "Federal assistance was already being provided."
Davis' request, made in a letter to President Bush dated April 16, took months to process, Kolton said, because "we obviously wanted to consider this issue very carefully."
Members of the California congressional delegation were informed of FEMA's decision in an e-mail last Friday, after some of the fires were already burning. Kolton said Davis' Sacramento office was also notified of the decision verbally and in a faxed letter.
In that letter FEMA offered no explanation for why it had taken six months to rule.
"FEMA recognizes the difficulty that the state of California and affected local governments are facing," wrote Michael D. Brown, undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response.
"After a careful review of the information contained in your request, the authorities granted to [Department of Agriculture] and [Department of Interior], and the resources they have already committed to the state, it has been determined that the federal assistance through FEMA is not warranted."
Bono said she had no warning that FEMA was poised to reject the state's request. She said the Southern California fires -- which so far have killed 20 people and destroyed 2,612 homes in San Diego, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties -- underscore the need for changes in forestry management policies to more easily allow dead trees to be thinned from fire-prone forests. She said that even if the emergency declaration had been made and money approved, "there was no infrastructure in place to remove the trees quickly."
Jim Specht, a spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), said FEMA's reluctance to approve the request may have stemmed in part from the fact that the agency was being asked to declare an emergency essentially to remove dead trees -- something that hadn't been the basis for any previous emergency declaration.
Lewis, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he lobbied Davis to seek the federal emergency declaration and $430 million.
"It's almost classic government," Lewis said in an interview outside the House chamber. "When you get below the third level in a bureaucracy, they don't believe it's going to happen until they see a fire rolling.... It's not a Democratic or Republican problem. It's a government problem."
Davis press secretary Steven Maviglio said the state's request was unusual in that it sought aid to prevent a fire disaster rather than respond after one occurred.
"FEMA is more of a reactive body than proactive body," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) said. "We need to start putting resources into preventing these things before they happen."
Bono added: "Part of FEMA's charter is to mitigate for disaster and in this case they thought it wasn't the case, it wasn't part of their job -- and look where we are because of that."
FEMA has the power to declare an emergency -- clearing the way for federal relief -- if a situation is deemed to be "an immediate threat to lives and property," Kolton said.
That was what Davis and other California elected officials maintained existed because of the large number of dead and dying trees caused by the beetle infestation.
"The point is we were searching for help from every possible angle we could get it, and FEMA was one," Bono said.
"The declaration, if FEMA would have given it, would have loosened up other money and made it easier for us to appropriate money, I believe. It would have been a starting point, sort of a triggering point for other money that would have been helpful."
Bono and Lewis followed up on Davis' April 16 request during a meeting with FEMA head Brown in July.