Feds to Butte County: ‘You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was’

Backing away from President Donald Trump’s blistering criticisms of California’s forest and fire management, top federal officials pledged a unified effort to help Paradise heal from the devastating Camp Fire, but also warned that the Butte County town is years away from full recovery.

“This is going to be a very long a frustrating event for the citizens of Paradise,” Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters after touring the fire-ravaged community with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Gov. Jerry Brown.

At least 48 people have been killed in what has become the state’s worst wildfire ever.

“We’ll be here for several years working this disaster,” said Long. “It’s not that it’s going to take five years to put people back in their homes but if you’re striving for a new normal ... what is the goal, what is the vision for where (the communities) want to be.

“You’re not going to be able to rebuild Paradise the way it was,” he added.

Paradise and neighboring towns will have to decide “what schools get rebuilt or not, or what hospitals get rebuilt or not,” he said.

In the short term, Long pledged to work with Mark Ghilarducci, director of California’s Office of Emergency Services, to make sure people can leave emergency shelters soon and “figure out what’s for rent, hotels and motels.”

With 7,000 homes and other buildings destroyed, Long urged displaced residents to register with FEMA for assistance. Ghilarducci said some residents of Paradise might have to be relocated to rentals “out of the county, a little ways out,” at least for the foreseeable future.

“Folks are going to stay in shelters a little while longer,” he added.

Long said there are other complications involved in allowing residents to return home quickly. “There’s not much to start with when it comes to the infrastructure,” the FEMA chief said. “You don’t have the infrastructure and you move people back in, there’s nothing to support them. We have to be very calculating.”

The press briefing, at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, was noteworthy for the absence of rancor between Brown and the Trump administration officials. The president called Brown Tuesday morning and promised to help the state.

“Let’s learn how to do this together,” the outgoing Democratic governor told reporters.

Earlier in the day, he signed an executive order to streamline cleanup and debris removal, and suspend zoning requirements and state-mandated fees for rushing manufactured homes and mobile homes into the area. Brown said he welcomes the Trump administration’s help but also returned to his persistent theme that “the changing climate” is making fires worse in California.

“Things are not going to get better, they’re going to get more challenging,” Brown said.

Zinke refused to endorse Trump’s claim that California’s forest-management practices are the cause of the state’s terrible fires.

“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Zinke said. “There are a lot of reasons why these catastrophic fires are happening. ... This is not a state issue, this is not a federal issue, this is an American issue.”

Zinke is scheduled to visit Southern California, site of the Woolsey Fire, on Thursday.

Asked about the president’s previous claims, he told The Sacramento Bee: “Sometimes out of catastrophe comes greater unity.”

Zinke also told The Bee that there is plenty of blame to go around for forests that he said are overgrown with dangerous fire fuels.

“The (U.S.) Forest Service is guilty, the Department of Interior is guilty,” he said. He also cited “the court system for allowing these frivolous lawsuits” that hinder government-sanctioned forest-thinning projects.

Zinke’s comments followed a series of controversial tweets earlier by President Donald Trump, who said California officials have mismanaged the state’s forests and set the table for the extraordinary string of wildfires. Trump’s tweets belied the fact that the Camp Fire started in the vicinity of the federal government’s Plumas National Forest — and that about 60 percent of the state’s forest lands are owned by the feds.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted last Saturday. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

In spite of the tweet, as well as previous threats to withhold wildfire funding from California, Trump has approved a disaster declaration for the Camp and Woolsey fires, enabling federal assistance to flow to the state.

As The Sacramento Bee reported last month, the federal government has spent $1.4 billion on wildfire assistance in California the past two years. That’s less than half what it spent on direct assistance to individuals victimized by Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017.

Zinke himself has taken aim at environmental groups that he blames for California’s wildfires. While touring the Redding area in August, where the Carr Fire killed eight people, he blasted “special interest groups” for using the courts to block forest-thinning projects that would reduce fuels for big wildfires.

In fact, many environmental groups have begun working with the timber industry on forest-thinning projects in recent years. “People are working at the table,” Rich Gordon of the California Forestry Association told The Bee recently.

Brown has signed a bill that streamlines regulations, and sets aside $1 billion over five years from the state’s “cap and trade” carbon trading program, to ramp up forest thinning projects in the state. But the outgoing Democratic governor, who has sparred frequently with Trump on a range of issues, has also been adamant that climate change — not forest management — is a more significant contributor to the state’s horrific wildfire season.

“We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life,” he said Sunday.

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