CLAREMONT, Calif. – Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (search) on Saturday defended the Bush administration's decision not to declare an emergency zone in Southern California forests before fires there erupted into one of the state's worst disasters.
State officials have noted that Gov. Gray Davis (search) in April asked federal emergency officials for $430 million to rid the forests of hundreds of thousands of trees killed by bark beetles during California's lengthy drought. The request was rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) just as the latest wildfires were beginning to spread.
Speaking with Gov. Gray Davis at a disaster relief center, Ridge called the state's request understandable, but suggested that officials "move forward" and deal with losses of homes, widespread deforestation and the potential for mud slides as winter comes to the region.
"This finger-pointing is not going to do anybody any good any more," Ridge said.
FEMA has said it decided against Davis' proposal largely because Congress had already agreed to provide $43 million this year for fighting the beetle infestation and the sum seemed appropriate at the time.
President Bush on Monday declared a disaster area in the four counties hardest hit by the fires, which have burned about 750,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and killed 20 people. State officials have estimated the fires will take a $2 billion toll on California's economy.
Although Davis officials have suggested the Bush administration acted too slow to combat the threat posed by the dead trees, Davis told reporters Saturday that he would not "play the blame game."
Some officials have said Davis himself lagged in responding to similar requests for emergency action from San Bernardino County (search) last year.
County Supervisor Fred Aguiar (search) called it "upsetting and offensive" that Davis cast blame on Bush when "the Davis administration on two occasions refused the county's request for a declaration of a state emergency."
Davis administration fire officials defended their actions, saying state law allows emergency declarations only to respond to disasters, not to prevent them. "Maybe we want to amend that law," Davis said Saturday.
Davis, ousted in a recall election Oct. 7, said that before he leaves office this month he will commission a review to examine what went wrong and what might be done to prevent such wildfires.