SAN FRANCISCO – President Bush offered federal help and encouragement Thursday to some of the 25,000 firefighters working under a blazing sun to contain wildfires that make up the single largest fire event ever recorded in California.
"I always come to make sure the federal government is coordinating closely with the state government," Bush said. "I know Gov. Schwarzenegger well enough to say that if we weren't, he'd let me know."
Since a huge lightning storm on June 21, about 2,010 separate fires have ignited across California, ravaging nearly 900,000 acres. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in 12 counties affected by the wildfires and has called in the California National Guard to help.
"The weather is stable — steady hot and dry inland," said Jason Kirchner, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "Our folks are grinding away on these fires, making progress, but it's coming slow and it's a lot of work."
Bush took an aerial tour with Schwarzenegger to survey fire damage in the 2.1 million-acre Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the largest in California.
Schwarzenegger said 80 percent of the U.S. fire resources for firefighting are deployed in California.
"I'd like to let the people out here know that we're paying attention in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "We care about you and we'll respond as best as we possibly can."
Bush was shown maps of the fires and then chatted with smoke jumpers who were mending and repacking parachutes.
"I want to say something to the firefighters. We had the privilege of meeting some of these smoke jumpers. They're unusual people — very courageous, determined and dedicated."
Later, the president was flying south to speak at a political reception in Napa, north of San Francisco, that's raising about $850,000 for the Republican National Committee.
Briefing reporters aboard Air Force One during the flight from Washington, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said a myriad of federal agencies have been participating in daily, one-hour video conferences with California officials to identify ways for the federal government to help the state.
He said a unified command system that FEMA put in place after the ineffective and sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina started working well last year and has helped provide timely federal help to California.
"It's been tough for the residents, I understand that," Paulison said. "But I have to tell you, the firefighting coordination, considering the size of this event, has been some of the best I've seen. I'm very proud of what's happened."
More than 25,000 firefighters have arrived from 41 states plus Canada, Greece, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico, he said. So far, FEMA has obligated more than $154 million to California to pay for firefighting, evacuations, shelter, traffic control, equipment and supplies, Paulison said. Nearly 150 helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines are involved.
About 200 injuries, including deep burns, have been reported. The only firefighter death so far has been attributed to a heart attack, said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman.
A man whose body was found Friday in a burned-out house in rural Butte County was identified as a 61-year-old who didn't heed evacuation requests.
Three men and a teenager trapped by flames in a Northern California forest were rescued on a closed road by fire crews Wednesday and treated for burns, authorities said.
Meanwhile, controlled burns designed to clear brush from the hills skirting the Big Sur coast were going well, officials said.
Mandatory evacuation orders remained in place Thursday for about 20 homes along the heavily wooded ridges near Carmel Valley, said Ruby Urueta, spokeswoman with the Monterey County Emergency Operations Center. Another 200 houses were emptied in the nearby rural community of Cachagua because of the fire danger.
The complex of fires in Butte County is 80 percent contained after burning through 84 square miles and destroying dozens of homes.
The number of casualties are much lower than in previous disasters in California, including the series of fires in October 2003 that left 24 people dead and destroyed thousands of homes.