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As disaster aid stalls in Congress, California braces for more "devastating" wildfires

Extreme weather traced to rapid Arctic changes

Months after wildfires raged across California, claiming 85 lives and leaving an historic $16.5 billion in estimated damage across the state, millions in federal disaster relief remains stalled in Congress. 

Now, California's emergency services chief tells CBS News they are bracing "for another year of very devastating fire activity" after a new report from the National Interagency Fire Center warned of "above normal" fire potential throughout much of California. 

Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa, whose district encompasses the some 100,000 acres consumed by last year's Camp Fire, fears 2019 could bring more disastrous blazes to the Golden State. 

"We could have three more towns like Paradise easily go up this coming summer, with the right wind conditions. We already have the right fuel conditions," LaMalfa tells CBS News. 

Since last year's fires, both parties have offered competing disaster relief packages in the Senate. Both claim to support aid for "all Americans" affected by the scores of natural disasters last year. 

But Democrats, from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail, say the Republican package doesn't provide enough aid for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from two destructive storms last year. 

"Our fellow Americans on the island have dealt with neglect and mismanagement by the Trump administration, and now they are facing major cuts to nutrition assistance," presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted in March.

Meanwhile, the island's governor claims the White House is slow-walking already allocated disaster relief, accusing President Trump of "discriminating against 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico." 

"Puerto Rico has suffered enough. We will not allow anyone to sabotage your recovery — not even the president of the United States," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also a Democratic presidential candidate, vowed during a visit to the island in January.

Another White House hopeful, California's own Sen. Kamala Harris, faced GOP criticism in April for missing procedural votes related to their disaster relief proposal. 

Harris, who had been campaigning in Sacramento and did not support the measure, brushed off the criticism at the time in a statement to Politico

"To all disaster survivors in California and across the country: I see you, I'm with you and I will continue to fight for you," Harris had written in a Facebook post the week prior. 

This week, negotiations continue with Senate Republicans over the disaster aid package, two Senate Democratic aides familiar with the talks tell CBS News, though the sides have yet to near a compromise. 

Meanwhile in California's Butte County, years of recovery — and millions of dollars — face the communities demolished by the Camp Fire. It's been more five months since the blaze was contained, yet FEMA is only now constructing survivors' long-promised housing units.

"We still have a lot of people displaced, living in hotels, or trailers, or whatever," Steve Lambert, chair of the Butte County Board of Supervisors, told CBS News. "It's going to be a couple years before we even get back to a point of any real building."

In a statement to CBS News, FEMA pointed to the difficulty of rebuilding the area. "Before placing recreational vehicles and/or manufactured housing units on any property, FEMA must ensure the support services are available," a FEMA spokesman said. 

"FEMA has several teams out in the community determining the feasibility of developing housing sites, including ensuring housing is not placed in high risk flood zones and debris flows areas, as well as other services such as water, adequate sewer removal, electrical hookup capability and conform with state, county and local development codes." 

State and local officials say federal funds have been critical to recovery work so far. While local and state governments spend much of their own funds to respond to natural disasters, they often turn first to FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund after "catastrophic events." 

The appropriation is "available and fully-funded" for the ongoing recovery work, a FEMA spokesperson told CBS News in a statement, with the agency having already distributed some $87 million in aid to more than 7,900 California households. 

However, the aid stalled in Congress is needed to shore up other federal programs key to disaster recovery and resilience, like the Community Development Block Grant or the Emergency Conservation Program

From mitigating future fires to housing Californians, officials warn the impact could be disastrous if funds dry up.

"It's unconscionable, quite frankly, that we are still sitting six months into this event and a disaster aid package has not been approved," Mark Ghilarducci, the director of California's Office of Emergency Services, tells CBS News. 

"Disasters keep happening, people lives keep getting impacted, and yet there's still no aid package. So it's a little frustrating, as you can imagine." 

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