WASHINGTON — President Bush mobilized federal emergency assistance Tuesday on behalf of Southern California officials struggling with devastating wildfires, and scheduled a visit to the stricken region on Thursday.
"The president wants to travel to California to witness firsthand what the people there are going through with these wildfires," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "He wants to ensure that the state and local governments are getting what they need from the federal government and he wants to make sure to deliver a message in person to the victims that he has them in his thoughts and prayers."
To make the trip, Bush is canceling a previously scheduled trip to St. Louis, where he was to deliver remarks on the budget and headline a fundraiser for the national Republican Party. Vice President Dick Cheney was going to fill in for the president, but the White House later decided to reschedule the events.
Earlier Tuesday, Perino said that it was premature to talk about a presidential visit to California, saying: "The last thing California needs right now is a trip from the president to take away assets." Later, she said Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed during a phone call that Thursday was the best day for Bush to come.
The dozen wildfires in California have set ablaze 375,000 acres — 585 square miles — and forecasts call for hotter temperatures and high winds that most expect to dramatically increase the destruction.
Perino also announced that Bush was convening a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning for a briefing from FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The top federal disaster officials were arriving in California on Tuesday night to see what more could be done from Washington and were to address the president and the Cabinet via secure videoconference.
Ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Bush held a half-hour conference call Tuesday night with several officials involved in the federal effort, with all receiving an initial update from the ground from Chertoff and Paulison. Chertoff reported that weather conditions are hampering efforts to contain the fires, and said top immediate priorities include helping with evacuation and shelter, providing relief for weary firefighters and sending medical teams, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
Schwarzenegger sent a letter to Bush late Tuesday asking him to declare a major disaster in California due to the fires. The move would pave the way for the federal government to provide financial assistance to those who lost possessions in the fire.
Bush briefly departed from a war on terror speech at the National Defense University to offer prayers for those losing houses and businesses — or about to lose them.
"All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes," he said. "We send the help of the federal government."
Just before 4 a.m. EDT, he declared a federal emergency for seven California counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. But it will take a major disaster declaration to help victims with property losses.
Perino said the federal government is applying lessons learned from a disaster that deeply damaged Bush's presidency — Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005 — to do a better job now. Such an improved response — mainly in terms of swift communication with state and local officials — has been evident in previous disasters, such as after tornadoes in Kansas and Alabama, and a major bridge collapse in Minnesota, she said.
"Clearly those lessons were learned, and they're being applied," Perino said.
To dramatize federal efforts and head off any suggestion of indifference of the kind that dogged Bush after Katrina, Perino showed slides at her daily briefing that detailed Washington's contribution so far in California. It includes 32 firefighting crews and dozens of fire engines from the Agriculture Department, 1,239 federal firefighters, 25,000 cots and 280,000 bottles of water.
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer complained on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the ability of the state's National Guard to respond to disasters like the fires has been compromised because too much of its equipment and personnel are committed in Iraq.
Perino said there are other places to get the needed resources to do the job.
"When you are a nation at war you have to use assets available to you and sometimes those come from the National Guard," Perino said. "The president has said we will get them what they need."
The wildfires have burned more than 1,800 homes, required at least 500,000 people to be evacuated, claimed at least one life and injured dozens, including many firefighters.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this story.