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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

President's Disaster Declaration

Secretary Veneman, USDA Secretary
October 29, 2003

Ann Veneman
Hello, I'm Secretary Ann Veneman. We are very saddened by the losses that are occurring throughout southern California. At this time there are 14 fires burning in six counties in southern California. The loss has been more than 625,000 acres which is an area about the size of Rhode Island. We know of 18 people who have lost their lives in this fire. We estimate about 2,300 homes have been lost as of now. Our hearts and sympathies go out to all of those who have suffered loss as a result of these devastating wildfires.

floyd, from nc writes:
Secretary Veneman What is your role with the fires as the director of agriculture. i thought this would be more of an Interior issue and FEMA?

Ann Veneman
The United States Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture. The USDA Forest Services manages 192 million of forests and grass lands. It is the largest agency within the Department of Agriculture and is also responsible for fire and aviation management. There are four national forests that are impacted by the 14 fires that are burning in southern California. These are the San Bernardino National Forest, the Angeles National Forest the Los Padres National Forest and the Cleveland National Forest.

We work closely with the Department of Interior and FEMA in coordinating national resources and there is an additional coordinated effort with all federal, state, local and tribal agencies when a disaster of this type occurs.

Vincent, from Moab writes:
The news is saying that the firefighters are stretched too thin. Is this right? What is the morale of the fire fighters?

Ann Veneman
We currently have about 13,500 firefighters on the fires that are burning in southern California. In addition, we have 3,000 – 4,000 personnel supporting those firefighters. They have been working long hours, they are tired but they are dedicated and they are heroes. They are doing an outstanding job. We now have more firefighters arriving from other parts of the country to provide relief for those firefighters who have worked long hours and need some period of time to rest.

Belinda, from San Joaquin Valley, California writes:
What's that red stuff airplanes drop on fires? does it do any good? I don't think so they are too high up in the air. thank you.

Ann Veneman
Thank you Belinda. I , also am originally from the San Joaquin Valley. The red material that you see airplanes drop on fires is fire retardant. Planes drop this ahead of the fire to keep the fire from burning in that area. The pilots and their crews are very skillful in knowing how, when and where to drop the retardants.

Toni, from Denver writes:
I'm worried because what we see in California could certainly happen here in Colorado. What states do you see as the most at risk next year?

Ann Veneman
A lot depends on weather conditions and part of what makes the situation in Southern California so bad is the combination of drought, high winds and insect-damaged trees. The Forest Service and other federal agencies are working hard to reduce the fuel loads -- the underbrush, by thinning, prescribed burnings and removing slash. These actions help lessen the severity of fire. It is this kind of active management of our public lands and National Forests that we want to increase as part of the President’s Healthy Forest Initiative.

Jake, from Ontario, CA writes:
I don't want to blame anyone in such a bad period. The fires are here and they are terrible. We need to put the fires out and help the people in any way that we can. Next step is to make sure this can't happen again. Are there ways we can stop this later on?

Ann Veneman
The landscape in the Southern California area is an eco-system that is prone to fire. A program called "firewise" helps homeowners lower the risk of fires around their homes. Information on this program can be found under the Forest Service section of the usda web site We can take actions like thinning, prescribed fires and slash removal to help control and lessen the intensity like we are having in California but it is impossible to prevent all wildfires. Especially when the conditions including drought and the winds as they are currently in southern California.

Grant, from Rockland writes:
I'm a student who has to write a paper on a current event and I have chosen the fires. I would like to quote you in my paper on why these fires started and what we are doing to stop them. I would also like to know what can be done to prevent fires in the future.

Thanks. If I can actually quote you in my paper, I think my teacher will think I'm very cool and perhaps get an "A." I mean, who else in my class is going to quote the Secretary of Agriculture

Ann Veneman
The combination of drought, heavy fuel loads and Santa Ana winds combine to make the situation in Southern California the worst we’ve ever seen. The federal government and the state of California have thousands of people, planes, helicopters, firetrucks and all kinds of other equipment working to control these fires.

There are 14 different fires burning in Southern California. We don’t know how each of them was started but we do know that one was started by a lost hunter trying to signal his whereabouts and we suspect that a couple other fires may have been started by arson. I do hope you get an “A” on your paper.

Chloe, from Virginia writes:
Madame Secretary what can citizens do to help those affected by the fires out west? On a side note I think it's terrific that you are the first woman Secretary of Agriculture.

Ann Veneman
Thank you for your kind words. it is an honor to serve in this administration. You asked about help available for those who have been affected by the fires. The American Red Cross in coordination with FEMA has several programs for collecting assistance for those affected by the fires.

FEMA has established a phone number at 1 800 621 FEMA (3362) for speech and hearing impaired should called (TTY) 1 800 462 7585. Further information may be obtained from the fema web site.

Adam, from West Virginia writes:
Ms. Veneman, As a graduating senior from the West Virginia University Division of Forestry with a Bachelors of Forestry in Woodscience, year after year I see these fires in the West and the same question comes to mind. One of the main reasons for the lack of fire control and prevention is due to three main aspects. One is decades of political actions by environmental groups that have all but locked up the West. In doing so they have caused a major roadblock for agencies such as the USDA Forest Service to go in and reduce on the ground fuel loads in these areas that are decades old, and mounting. The third point is that the West lacks vital microbes and fungi found in the East that rot and degrade fallen limbs and fuel loads. Hence the reason that it mounts in the West rather than being controlled naturally as in the East.

Since we cannot control the lack of mother natures controls in the West, my question then is what is the Bush Administration doing to turn around some of the environmental policies put in place in years past that are now hampering efforts to stop these fires? Shouldn't we be pro-active and "Prevent" forest fires as the motto says, rather than be tied down by political red tape until a fire erupts? I think that it is time for the Forest Service to go back to some of the good Forest Management techniques that were vital when it was established with Gifford Pinchot at the helm. It seems as though there are less Foresters in the Forest Service and more biologists and bureaucrats obsessed with saving the very thing that fires are destroying.

Ann Veneman
Thank you adam for your very good question. The President and this Administration are committed to maintaining healthy forests and we have taken steps toward this end. A critical component of the President’s healthy forests initiative is hazardous fuels reduction which will reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Forests and rangelands have become unnaturally dense and eco-system health has suffered significantly. Coupled with seasonal droughts these unhealthy forests overloaded with fuels are vulnerable to unnaturally severe wildfires. The President’s Healthy Forests Intiative seeks to reduce these risks.

I hope that you will consider USDA Forest Service as a career option after you graduate.

Elizabeth, from Boston Mass. writes:
Dear Secretary Veneman, I have a Question to ask you? When the attacks occured they had a tribute to the brave Firefighters that helped out. Now will they have Something like that in California For the Fire Fighters who are trying to put the fire out and to try to save lives out in California.

Ann Veneman
You mention in your question the brave firefighters that assisted during the aftermath of 911. many people do not know that several teams of forest service fire fighters traveled to both New York City and the Pentagon to assist with the aftermath of 911. We do indeed have the best firefighters in the world. Our forest service firefighters have a success rates on initial attack of forest fires of 98 percent. They are heroes trying to protect the lives and property of people affected by wildfire. Many of them have lost their own home or property . We continually receive calls and letters praising them for their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude. It is not possible at this point to predict what kind of tribute there may be to the firefighters fighting these fires, I would note however that the State of California does have a memorial on the State Capital grounds commemorating all firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. We are fortunate that no loss of life among firefighters have occurred in these southern California fires.

Again, the firefighters are all heroes and we thank them for their service.

Ann Veneman
Thank you for your questions today. Once again, we are very saddened by the losses that are occurring throughout southern California. Our hearts and sympathies go out to all of those who have suffered loss as a result of these devastating wildfires.

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