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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
July 17, 2008

Press Gaggle by Scott Stanzel, FEMA Administrator David Paulison, and Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment Mark Rey
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Redding, California

1:55 P.M. EDT

MR. STANZEL: Good afternoon, everyone. As you know, we're on our way to California to view some of the devastating fire damage that's occurred over the course of the past few weeks.

I'll go ahead and go through the President's schedule, and we're joined today by FEMA Administrator David Paulison, who can talk about the overarching federal response to the fires, as well as Mark Rey, who is the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment. He oversees the Forest Service and can talk a little bit about the fires specifically and the forests. But first -- and then I'll take your questions. We'll have an opportunity to -- they'll have an opportunity to respond to questions and then I'll take some of your other questions after we're done.

Today, as you know, at 8:00 a.m. this morning, the President had his normal briefings. And the President attended -- the President and Mrs. Bush attended the funeral service for Tony Snow. At 2:30 p.m. today, when we arrive in California, the President will participate in a briefing on the California wildfires. That will be at -- in Redding, California. We'll have pool at the top, and he'll receive a briefing on the response efforts from federal, state and local officials.

And as you -- I'll let the two experts here talk a little bit about the fires themselves, but I would just note that on June 28th, the President signed an emergency declaration for the state of California; that is providing federal funding and support. And we have lots of information about the fires, and these are the single-largest -- this is the single-largest fire event in the history of California with over 1,300 square miles burned since June 21st.

After the President participates in that briefing on the California wildfires, he is going to participate in an aerial tour of the area, of Redding, and he will be joined in that by Governor Schwarzenegger. Administrator Paulison will also be there for an aerial tour of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. And following the aerial tour, the -- Governor Schwarzenegger and the President will deliver brief remarks.

At 6:20 p.m. this evening, the President will attend a Republican National Committee reception in Napa, California; that's closed press. And then we're on our way to Tucson overnight.

Just a note, also traveling with us on Air Force One, in addition to the two gentlemen here, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Representative Wally Herger, and Representative John Doolittle. Upon arrival, in addition to the Governor greeting the President, we'll have Mayor Mary Stegall from the city of Redding. And also the President will be greeted by Alex Braden, Mark Hendricks, and Jake Wellman, and they are members of the Order of the Arrow, Boy Scouts of America. And the President will be providing them a volunteer service award. The Boy Scouts -- and Mark can talk a little bit about this -- the Boy Scouts have quite an aggressive project to help with forest restoration. So that is upon arrival. And that is what I have for you.

Now, if I could get FEMA Administrator David Paulison to give you a little bit of sense of the federal response.

Go ahead, sir.

ADMINISTRATOR PAULISON: Good afternoon. I think, first of all, all of us want to express our heartfelt sympathy and condolences to Tony Snow's family. Everyone knows the funeral was this morning -- a tough time for all of us, and a very tough time for the family. Just a great individual; I'm sure you all knew him personally.

The -- let me talk about -- I'm going to let Mark talk about the fires. I want to give you some of my observations of what I've seen over the last several weeks, and then talk about the federal coordination. I get to see a lot of disasters, and quite frankly, the -- from the Governor's office, the CAL OES, California firefighters, the California National Guard, the local and state firefighters have just done an outstanding job of handling really a monumental task of fires spread across the entire state. Very, very pleased with what I saw.

On the 28th of June, the President signed the declaration. That allowed us to start operating as a federal agency under the National Response Framework. We have started holding daily video conferences with CAL OES, CAL FIRE, the National Guard, the National Integration Fire Center, FEMA, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Defense, including NORTHCOM and JDOMS, GSA, EPA, Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, the Red Cross, and a ton of other people meet every day for an hour on a video conference to find out exactly what the resource needs of California are, and how we're going to fill those.

That's worked extremely well, the unified command system that we put in place since Katrina. It started working well last year, and it really came to a head this year with these fires. It allowed us -- and I see "us" as a local, state and federal team -- to amass over 20,000 firefighting personnel from 41 different states, and we even have Australia, Canada, Greece, New Zealand, the Commonwealth of Mariana Islands, and Mexico sending firefighters in to fight these fires. That doesn't happen very often, and the coordination went very well.

It also allowed us to infuse a lot of money into the system. Today we've obligated over $154 million to California to help fight these fires, and that's helped with firefighting cost, helped pay for the evacuations, traffic control, for sheltering of individuals, mass care, equipment and supplies, bringing in firefighting equipment like helicopters and fire trucks around the country.

It's been tough for the residents, I understand that. But I have to tell you, the firefighting coordination, considering the size of this event, has been some of the best that I've ever seen -- very proud of what's happened.

And what I'd like to do now is let Mark talk about the fire itself, and I'll try to get out of his way without knocking him down.

UNDER SECRETARY REY: Afternoon. We've had a couple of pretty good days the last couple of days in firefighting. And as a consequence, we're getting higher level of containment on virtually all of the fires and getting 100 percent containment on a couple yesterday.

One indication of the fact that we're turning the corner is that for the first time yesterday, the Central Command in California told us to stand by some crews that were ready to deploy into California because the pace and the tempo of the effort is now beginning to take over the spread of the fires.

As David indicated, we have presently over 25,000 firefighters battling the blazes in California, with over 1,000 fire engines, 23 large air tankers, and almost 150 helicopters. The system -- the dry lightning system that started this event on June 20th extended for three days and resulted in 8,000 lightning strikes that produced over 2,000 fires.

Now I want to compare that to the event last fall in southern California where we had around 270 ignitions. So this dry lightning event produced almost 10 times the number of fires that we experienced and fought last fall in southern California during that Santa Ana system that produced a large number of fires as a consequence of the arcing of the high tension lines and other events that occurred at that time. So this will give you a sort of an order of magnitude of the significance and size of the event that we're now recovering from.

What we saw last fall is that the work done through the President's Healthy Forest Initiative in thinning areas and reducing flammable fuels helped reduce the number of acres burned, as compared to 2003, when we had the last big Santa Ana event, as well as reducing the number of homes lost, as compared to 2003.

For instance, in 2003, during what was a shorter and less severe event, we lost 5,200 homes. In 2007 last fall, we lost 3,000 homes. So far in this event, we've lost just over a hundred homes. Now, you can't compare northern and southern California directly because these areas are a lot less populated, but when these fires are out, what we're going to see here again, as we saw last fall, are areas where we were able to put the fires out because they entered into places where thinning had been done, and they reduced in intensity and allowed our firefighters to attack them directly as a consequence of the thinning work that was done as a result of the President's Healthy Forest Initiative.

With that, I guess we're open for your questions. Oh, one other thing. I said I would explain why the Boy Scouts are there. This summer the Boy Scouts and the Forest Service are cooperating in the largest public service project in the history of either organization. Over the course of the summer, from about the middle of June until the end of July, we'll have about 5,000 Boy Scouts on five different national forests doing habitat and forest improvement work, including some of the thinning that's part of the President's Healthy Forest Initiative.

The first national forest that was selected for work in June was the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. That was followed by the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Utah, and the George Washington National Forest in Virginia; now the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, where the Scouts will be wrapping up their work on Saturday. And then the project will end on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming. Over the course of those five weeks, 5,000 Scouts will contribute about 250,000 hours of service to the national forests and to the country.

Q Do you have anything -- do you have anything on the death toll?

UNDER SECRETARY REY: The death toll for these fires so far has been zero civilian deaths, three firefighter deaths. One of those three was on duty, as a result of a heart attack. The other two were off duty; one was a drowning accident, and the other was an automobile accident. I don't have any updated numbers on injuries, although we have not had any life-threatening injuries.

Q And square miles burned?

UNDER SECRETARY REY: I was afraid you were going to ask square miles burned -- it's about 900,000 acres burned. I'd have to get you the -- it's 66 acres per square mile, so -- (laughter) -- if you want the divide that number by 66 --

Q Nine hundred thousand?

UNDER SECRETARY REY: Nine hundred thousand, almost -- acres.

Q And the $154 million, do you know where that comes from? Is that FEMA money, or is that -- how do I break that down?

ADMINISTRATOR PAULISON: The $154 million comes out of the Disaster Relief Fund that FEMA has in its account for disasters like this.

Q So it's all FEMA money?


Q It's all FEMA money?


Q How does that compare to the other disasters, say, the floods? Those are much higher in terms of damage and FEMA money, right?

ADMINISTRATOR PAULISON: We haven't tallied the amount of funds yet for the floods. That's still ongoing because we haven't been able to get into all the public assistance because the water hasn't gone down yet. As far as the fire, that's been almost immediate expenditures for firefighting activity, bringing equipment in, paying for overtime -- all that type of stuff.

Q And how does the $154 million compare to other disasters? I mean, just on a scale. I don't mean --

ADMINISTRATOR PAULISON: Well, if you get to something like Katrina, you're up into the billions of dollars, so -- and probably into the flooded area, we'll be over a billion dollars there. So this is just strictly for firefighting. We haven't got into any public assistance things or -- probably not much individual assistance because there's only been a little over a hundred homes burned.

Q Can you give us an idea of what he'll see in the aerial tour?

UNDER SECRETARY REY: What he'll see in the aerial tour is areas of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that have burned, as well as areas that have been thinned to reduce flammable materials. He'll also see a couple of thinning projects that did result in our ability to put out a fire more easily.

Let me correct a number I gave you. It's 640 acres per square mile. So I've got to remember that. I have a hard time with the metric system and all that sort of stuff. I don't trust it.

Q That's 900,000 acres, right?


MR. STANZEL: Any other questions?

All right. Thank you both very much. Appreciate it.

Q The Guardian was reporting this morning that we're -- that the U.S. is going to open a interest section, I think, in Iran next month. How far along is that in the process?

MR. STANZEL: You've heard Secretary of State Rice talk about that. I'm not going to talk about any internal deliberations about that, so I don't have any news for you on it.

Q Are you expecting -- Secretary Paulson on Sunday had the plan for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Democrats are talking about trying to put legislation -- you know, the $4 billion to -- adding on to Secretary Paulson's plan. Do you expect legislation to get through before the August research on -- recess? Or do you think there's going to be a --

MR. STANZEL: I think we're certainly hopeful that Congress will put forward a housing bill that will help the situation, provide for a strong GSE regulator, address some of those things that Secretary Paulson has spoken about. And we're hopeful that they'll get it done in the next couple weeks. We think there's broad agreement, obviously, that we need a housing bill to address the problems that we're seeing.

The President, way back in '03, put forward a plan for the GSE regulator; last year, August 31st, really pushed Congress to move forward on housing legislation. They have not yet, but we think we are seeing positive signs out of Congress that they may be able to move forward in the next couple weeks.

Q Also, the President's claim yesterday on executive privilege as concerns Vice President's interview with the FBI on the CIA leak -- you know, people on Capitol Hill, Chairman Waxman, asking what the White House has to hide. What's the White House response to those sorts of questions?

MR. STANZEL: That was asserted at the request of Attorney General Mike Mukasey. Most of the materials sought by Waxman's committee are FBI reports summarizing interviews of White House officials who voluntarily agreed to be interviewed without a subpoena and outside the presence of the grand jury, and the Attorney General advised the President that not only did these materials reflect internal communications that are entitled to confidentiality, but the disclosure of those would harm the Justice Department's ability to conduct certain types of investigations in the future.

So the Attorney General advised the President that the possibility of discouraging volunteer -- or voluntarily interviews would be a serious problem for future investigations, which rely heavily on witnesses who cooperate fully and candidly in voluntarily interviews. So that's why the -- that privilege was put forward.

Q Is the administration working on some kind of a new definition for contraceptives, a new family planning rule?

MR. STANZEL: I'm not aware of what you're speaking to, so --

Q Okay.

MR. STANZEL: I can take that question and get back to you.

Q Governor Schwarzenegger is going to be in the event today?

MR. STANZEL: That's correct.

Q Just a few days ago, the Governor had some pretty strong words for President Bush and his global warming policy, saying that he didn't think that this administration had ever believed that global warming was a problem, that he -- that anything that the administration did in these final months would be bogus -- he used the word "bogus," anyway. Does this have any impact on the event today? Any effect on the friendship between the two men?

MR. STANZEL: Absolutely not. Governor Schwarzenegger is a colorful and opinionated leader who is not shy about voicing his opinions, and we may have different approaches on issues of climate change. That's an issue where the President has really led through the major economies process. And we've had different opinions about how we address those issues, but here we're all coming together. There's Republicans and Democrats on this plane who are working together to make sure we address the needs of the people of California.

ADMINISTRATOR PAULISON: Somebody asked a question about the major disaster declarations. We have 30 disaster declarations going on in 18 states right now -- 30 in 18 states.

Q How many -

Q -- last year as a comparison?

ADMINISTRATOR PAULISON: I just happen to have today's report, so I knew that.

END 2:17 P.M. EDT