SAN DIEGO (BP)–President Bush toured the most devastated areas of San Diego County Nov. 4, offering hope to wildfire victims and thanking hundreds of firefighters and support personnel for their efforts in saving lives.
“We’ve seen the worst of nature,” said the president, who arrived at Gillespie Field in El Cajon about 10:30 a.m. after being flown by helicopter over towns where wildfires turned hundreds of homes into piles of ashes in late October.
Hundreds of firefighters listened to Bush, who stood on the back of a California Department of Forest truck flanked by California Gov. Gray Davis on one side and California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger on the other.
Davis and Schwarzenegger had joined Bush aboard Marine One for the flyover before arriving at the field that served as base camp for thousands of firefighters.
“I think when people realize the scope of these fires, the historic nature of these fires, they’ll realize what a superhuman effort you all put in to save lives,” Bush told the crowd as an American flag waved behind him from of a ladder truck.
In their efforts, he said, “you see the best of mankind.”
“Thank you for saving lives,” the president told the crowd. “God bless you for that.”
Bush also praised Red Cross workers for putting in hundreds of hours helping victims of the fire.
“We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves,” the president commented. “… A lot of the city is wondering what tomorrow will be like. It’s a very sad moment to listen to the stories of those whose lives were devastated. I suspect the citizens at the darkest moments will find a light when a fellow citizen loves them.”
The San Diego-area Cedar Glen Fire has destroyed 2,200 homes and killed 14 people. It is expected to be fully contained this week and fire crews have already begun the mop up phase, according to reports by the Associated Press. The overall count for wildfires across Southern California stands at 22 people killed and 3,600 homes destroyed.
Before he began speaking, the president walked through a sea of off-duty firefighters, said many “thank you’s,” shook hands, hugged a few and stopped for numerous photos with them. He was followed by Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger, who was greeted with chants of “Arnold!” and Gov. Davis who signed firemen’s hats.
Southern California’s congressional delegation also was present, including Republican Reps. Darrell Issa of Vista, Duncan Hunter of El Cajon and Democratic Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis, both of San Diego.
“It feels good to finally be recognized,” said Brian Kalb, 21, a firefighter from Saugus, Calif. “Most of the time we fight fires in the middle of nowhere and people don’t even know we’re doing it. This is pretty cool that the president is coming to visit us.”
Bush said he wanted to pay homage to Novato firefighter Steve Rucker, 38, who died defending a home near Julian. “This is an ultimate act of sacrifice,” the president said. “Our deepest condolences and prayers are for him. God bless his loved ones as well.”
The previous day, hundreds of firefighters and Schwarzenegger attended a salute to Rucker at Gillespie Field before his body was transported to the Bay Area where he will have a formal memorial service Nov. 12.
Matt McComas, a supervisor for the Los Angeles Country Department of Corrections based at a fire camp 60 miles away, said his faith in God was what brought him strength day after day.
“The pain of losing a firefighter, the exhaustion, and being away from home so long is hard,” said McComas, who had supervised a crew of 27 inmates fighting the fires for two weeks. “We thought we’d be able to go home today but we were assigned to cutting the fire line near Ramona.”
Dan Bledsoe, a driver operator for the Elko, Nev., fire department, described Bush’s visit as good for morale.
“It’s important that the president came down here,” said Bledsoe, who has been working the fire near Julian where Rucker was killed. “The firefighters did a good job. There are houses still standing in the middle of fire-burned areas solely because the firemen protected them.”
Bledsoe choked back tears as he recalled residents standing on the side of streets in Julian cheering for firefighters as they drove through town.
“This is absolutely the worst destruction I’ve ever seen,” said Bledsoe, a 12-year veteran of firefighting, who will stay on to beat burning stumps of trees to prevent the fire from erupting again. “The president said to help our neighbors and this has brought out the best in them.”
On his tour, Bush landed on a ball field of an Alpine elementary school and walked through the neighborhood destroyed by the fire.
After viewing the devastation, he said, “I see human tragedy and heartache. However, I see a strong spirit. Amidst their tears there is hope. The spirit is strong. People resolve to move on with their lives. We want to help them.”
Of his involvement in the wildfires’ aftermath, Bush said, “What I do is I answer questions asked and make sure the help that is available is being delivered,” he said. “If there’s a frustration at the federal level, I need to know about it. I haven’t heard that yet. So far, the marks appear to be good. The best thing I can do is to listen and hug and empathize the best I can empathize. It’s very difficult.”
Fire officials were told the president is backing legislation that would increase federal funding to thin forests, which would reduce the type of vegetation that helped fuel the wildfires. A compromise forest-thinning bill recently was passed by the Senate.
Southern Californians are facing their next danger — mudslides — because the fire has burned away the trees and bushes that keep soil in place on hillsides. Crews planned to begin reseeding, digging flood-control trenches and bringing in sandbags. Crews also were moving away from the front lines to hunt for hot spots and possibly bodies that have not been counted, according to AP reports.
There are still 27,000 displaced residents, down from 80,000 at the peak of the fires, according to the AP.
“Please do know some of your citizens are hurting,” Bush said. “May God bless you all and may God bless California.”
This story includes material provided by pool reporters with the president. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: AN APPRECIATIVE PRESIDENT, AT BASE CAMP, A DAY OF COMPASSION, FIREFIGHTER’S SACRIFICE, A FITTING ESCORT, SILENT SALUTE, HONORING A COLLEAGUE, A TIME FOR TEARS and CHURCH’S COMMITMENT.