WASHINGTON – Joined by an open-palmed governor and governor-elect Tuesday, President Bush got a bird's-eye view of the damage caused by wildfires that charred nearly 750,000 acres of California wilderness and left an estimated $10 billion in destruction.
It's the president's fifth day traveling the nation focusing on politics and domestic matters, but the first in which he saw the aftermath of several fires that burned for weeks and destroyed almost 1,200 square miles of southern California.
Outgoing Gov. Gray Davis (search) and Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), who was already planning to ask for help getting the state back on its financial footing, joined Bush on a helicopter ride over the Cedar Fire area and a walk-through of the area reduced to ash by the Harbison Canyon Fire.
Fires are contained but still burning in portions of the devastated area, but businesses and families are already back to work trying to reassemble their communities.
Bush, appearing emotional, greeted family members in one of southern California's most devasted communities in San Diego County. Walking amidst ashes in cowboy boots, a button-down shirt and slacks, Bush surveyed a scene of breathtaking destruction and took questions nearby a burnt-out car.
The president told reporters that local families have been "crushed by material loss."
"The worst of nature can bring out the best in fellow human beings. Each person, they were thankful for the fact that neighbors do care about neighbors, people are helping people here. It's tough," Bush said as he promised that federal, state and local agencies will do all they can to help the thousands who have lost homes. An estimated 27,000 people are still in shelters after having been evacuated from their communities.
The president also met with area firefighters who battled the blazes that caused more than 20 deaths, destroyed 3,570 homes and left the state further behind the eight ball as it tries to draws itself out of a massive budget deficit.
During his daylong trip, Bush planned to meet with local authorities and made brief remarks at Gillespie Airfield maintenance shed in El Cajon, Calif.
"The president is going there to tour some of the areas that have been particularly hard hit by wildfires and receive a briefing from local authorities," McClellan said Monday on the way back to Texas from Alabama, where Bush raised $1.8 million for his re-election campaign.
The president is hoping that this, his 10th trip to the state, will also raise his election prospects among California voters, who elected Schwarzenegger, a Republican, in a special election last month.
The Bush campaign hopes Schwarzenegger's win will make the president competitive in California in 2004, while Schwarzenegger's team hopes the White House will see the benefit in being more generous with federal support.
California is worth 55 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Bush lost the state to Al Gore by 1.2 million votes in 2000.
Bush-Cheney campaign officials note that Schwarzenegger and rival Republican Tom McClintock (search) took a total of 62 percent of the vote in last month's recall. They claim that with that many California voters backing the two Republicans, it's hard to argue that California won't be up for grabs next year.
Bush had no plans to announce any additional aid for California, which will receive some of the $500 million assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) in the Iraq supplemental spending bill approved by Congress Monday.
FEMA was already helping out businesses and residents in five counties -- San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino -- declared disaster areas and eligible for federal relief.
"It will be an opportunity for the president to see first hand the devastation from the wildfires and receive a briefing on our federal response recovery efforts that have been undertaken," McClellan said before the president's meetings.
Bush also did not use the appearance to pitch his forest initiative, which would allow clearing of timber in fire-prone areas. Both the House and Senate have passed versions of this legislation, but have not yet reconciled differences in order to send it to the president's desk.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.