Bush Leaves for California to See Fires

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush, as he left Thursday to get a close-up view of the devastation caused by wildfires in Southern California, thanked firefighters, expressed sympathy for those who lost their homes and businesses and promised federal assistance.

"It's a sad situation out there in Southern California," he said. "I fully understand that the people have got a lot of anguish in their hearts, and they just need to know a lot of folks care about them."

Bush spoke on the South Lawn as he left rainy Washington for the bone-dry conditions of California, where a break in the harsh winds raised hope of progress against fires that threatened to take still more homes.

"Apparently the winds are more favorable today which should be encouraging to firefighters," Bush said.

Bush was expected to arrive in California by midmorning. He was scheduled to take a helicopter tour of the wildfire damage and visit a San Diego neighborhood. Bush then was to travel north to Escondido to assess that area's damage and talk about recovery efforts. He planned lunch with emergency responders before returning to Washington later in the day.

"I will assure the people of California that the federal government will be deploying resources, assets and manpower necessary to help fight these fires," Bush said. "As well, I will assure them that because of the declaration I signed yesterday, there will be help for the people of California."

Bush's disaster declaration set in motion long-term federal recovery programs, some requiring matches from the state, to help state and local governments, families, individuals and certain nonprofit organizations recover. The assistance varies from direct aid for uninsured losses to help with rebuilding infrastructure.

The fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes since Sunday and led to the largest evacuation in California history. The flames have burned at least 431,000 acres across five counties, from Ventura in the north all the way into Mexico. Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, and Bush has signed a separate major disaster declaration for California.

"I'm also looking forward to spending some time with some of the firefighters," Bush said. "We have some incredibly brave citizens who are risking their lives to protect people and property in California and we owe a great debt of gratitude to our nation's firefighters."

The fires are the first natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina to occur since that storm in 2005, and the White House is determined to convey a picture of a speedy and effective response. After a special Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Bush said his administration would continue to make sure that the federal government's response was coordinated.

Memories still linger of the government's failed response to the Gulf Coast storm and how it hurt Bush's standing. The tricky matter of when to time a presidential tour - one that itself commands state and local resources - was one the White House had to work through.

The White House did not want Bush's presence to interfere with emergency response efforts this week. After consulting with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush decided that Thursday was the right time to get a direct look and comfort victims.

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