REDDING, Calif. – President Bush toured the front lines of northern California’s historic wildfires Thursday to buck up the troops and extol his administration’s efforts to wage war on the flames.
After a half-hour helicopter ride on Marine One over a few of the more than 1,750 lightning-sparked blazes that have troubled the northern part of the state over the last month, Bush vowed to continue the battle.
“I’d like to just let the people out there know that we’re paying attention to you in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said after the smoky flyover of the nearby Shasta-Trinity National Forest. “We care about you, and we’ll respond as best we can.”
But even before Air Force One first sent up a plume of ocher dust at Redding Municipal Airport, the president came under fire from Democrats.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, issued a statement urging the president to reconsider his objection to providing emergency supplemental funds to deal with the fires. Although the administration has earmarked $154 million in disaster assistance funds, Byrd blamed White House objections for dashing a bid in Congress to add $450 million for wildfire suppression and to repair burned lands.
The response was friendlier in Redding.
Local residents in shorts and tank tops turned out by the dozens in 100-degree heat for a fleeting glimpse of the president’s plane.
Bush was greeted at the steps of Air Force One by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Redding Mayor Mary Stegall, then posed for pictures with a trio of Boy Scouts who are among thousands rebuilding forest trails and clearing trash this summer.
He then met with leaders of the wildfire fight and visited a hangar to talk to a team of smoke jumpers, who parachute into the heart of wildfires.
The president’s eyes grew wide when John Casey, a 38-year-old veteran, said he’d made 200 jumps. “I couldn’t do it,” Bush said, adding, “I appreciate your service.”
Bush stressed his administration’s assistance – a sore point for him after Hurricane Katrina.
“I always come to make sure the federal government is coordinating well with the state government,” Bush said. “I know Governor Schwarzenegger well enough to know that if we weren’t, he’d let me know.”