Mr. Bush boarded Marine One at mid-morning and headed off into the smoky haze that has choked Southern California since Sunday, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.
The president's trip to California drew close scrutiny today, with every step and sound bite compared to what he said and did after Hurricane Katrina, when his administration was harshly criticized for a slow and ineffective response.
But Mr. Bush dismissed comparisons between Katrina and California and he seemed satisfied by the response he saw here today, adds Reynolds.
"We've got a big problem out here," the president said near the end of his quick, four-hour visit. "We want the people to know there's a better day ahead - that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better," Mr. Bush said. "And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so."
Said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Bush's tour guide for the day: "The only way to grasp the true magnitude is to see it for yourself and to be out there with the people whose lives have been turned upside down."
Masks and small, wet towels were distributed to the presidential entourage to help cope with the smoky conditions.
For 15 minutes Mr. Bush flew over the now familiar scenes of scorched earth, putting down at San Diego community of Rancho Bernardo and the rubble that once was the home of Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat, reports Reynolds.
"Those of us who are here in government, our hearts are right here with the Jeffcoats," the president said, his arm draped around Mrs. Jeffcoat. Holding her small brown dog on a leash, she fought back tears and Mr. Bush kissed her on the head.
He shook hands at a makeshift disaster assistance center where government agencies and private companies are providing help to residents.
From there, the president's motorcade passed charred hillsides on the way north to Escondido, where he assessed that area's damage and addressed the public and about 200 tired-looking firefighters.
"We can't thank people enough for putting their lives at risk to help a neighbor," Mr. Bush said.
Amid all this pain were lingering memories of Washington's slow response to Katrina over two years ago, and how it damaged Mr. Bush's standing.
As the first natural disaster to begin to approach the scale of the Gulf Coast storm, the fires represent a tough test for the administration. Katrina, however, affected a far larger geographic area, knocked out all communications and most key infrastructure, and impacted a relatively poorer population and much less-prepared states.
With the White House determined to convey a picture of a speedy and effective performance this time around, Mr. Bush was asked to compare the two.
"There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response to that response," he said. "You better ask the governor how we're doing."
Schwarzenegger, standing next to Mr. Bush on a cul de sac, said the president reached out to him earlier this week before he even had a chance to make the call himself. "I call this quick action - quicker than I expected, I can tell you that," the governor said.
Later, in Escondido, Schwarzenegger was more effusive.
"I want to thank the president for coming out here today and being such a tremendous partner, such a great help, having done everything that needs to be done," he said.
Mr. Bush returned the praise for his fellow Republican. "It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead," he said.
It wasn't clear whether this was a subtle swipe at the Democratic governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, with whom the White House has traded blame for the Katrina crisis.
But much of Mr. Bush's stay in California offered reminders of Katrina, with some of his rhetoric even remarkably similar.
For instance, Thursday's "we're not going to forget you" promise echoed what Bush said in New Orleans as he ended his first day in the hurricane zone on Sept. 2, 2005: "I'm not going to forget what I've seen," he said then. And Bush's "better day ahead" consolation in California recalled lofty words from his speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square on Sept. 15, 2005.
"I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood, or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter, it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come," he said.
Fran Townsend, Bush's White House-based homeland security adviser, said the disaster response this time is unfolding "exactly the way it should be" and is "better and faster" than the administration's performance after Katrina.
"This is not the end of federal assistance. It's just the beginning," she said.
A break in this week's high, hot winds, and a helpful change in their direction, had officials hoping they could make progress Thursday. Some evacuees were even being allowed back into their neighborhoods. But several fires remained far from containment and threatened thousands more homes.