Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen plans to visit wildfire-ravaged parts of Santa Rosa today, after flying over areas of Southern California devastated by the Thomas fire on Tuesday.
Nielsen’s visit to California this week coincided with President Donald Trump’s declaring a major disaster in Southern California over the Thomas fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 buildings as fierce winds whipped it through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last month.
The declaration makes federal funding available to state and local governments and some nonprofit organizations for emergency work in those counties and statewide for work to reduce hazards related to the fire, according to a White House statement.
Trump already approved a major disaster declaration for the October wildfires that killed 40 people in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties and destroyed 5,130 homes in Sonoma County. Insured damages alone topped $9 billion.
The Thomas fire that began on Dec. 4 in Ventura County is the largest recorded in the state. It was 92 percent contained on Tuesday. Firefighters were still putting out hot spots and smoldering areas.
The fire covered more than 440 square miles (1,140 sq. kilometers), killed two people, destroyed entire neighborhoods, threatened coastal foothill communities, ravaged wilderness areas and cast a pall of smoke that shuttered businesses in downtown Santa Barbara.
Firefighting costs alone have approached $200 million.
The disaster declaration means the federal government may cover 75 percent of those costs and the costs of recovering from the blaze, such as removing vast amounts of debris in fire-denuded areas that could be hit with flash floods and debris flows if winter rains arrive.
After a flight over the devastated area on Tuesday, Nielsen said the president’s declaration will help with rebuilding from the fire, which burned more than 700 homes along with other buildings.
“Seeing the devastation, I’m deeply moved,” she said. “My heart goes out to the survivors. We met with some of them today.”
Gov. Jerry Brown requested a disaster declaration last month for San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as devastating fires swept the state.
“It is expected many of the survivors in the impacted communities will have no insurance coverage or be underinsured,” Brown’s request said. “Even for those survivors who have insurance coverage, major challenges remain to obtain temporary housing and attempt to rebuild their lives.”
Although Tuesday’s declaration only covers Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, “damage assessments are continuing in other areas, and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after the assessments are fully completed,” the White House statement said.