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Trump approves disaster declaration for California as wildfires claim another victim

Last Updated Aug 5, 2018 9:43 PM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — The Trump administration declared a "major disaster" in California as the state fights devastating wildfires that have now claimed at least nine lives. The declaration makes federal funds available to residents of Shasta County, where the Carr Fire outside Redding, California, has wiped out entire neighborhoods and forced thousands of evacuations.

The move comes shortly after Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) confirmed one of its employees died in an vehicle-related accident Saturday while working to restore services in Shasta County. The company said Jairus Ayeta, in his 20s, worked as an apprentice lineman and was part of a PG&E crew working in "dangerous terrain" to restore power.

Also Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown called on President Trump to help California fight and recover from what has been another destructive wildfire season. 

Brown, who inspected neighborhoods wiped out by the fire in Redding, said he was confident the president he has clashed with over immigration and pollution policies would send aid, which Mr. Trump did last year when California's wine country was hit hard. 

"The president has been pretty good on helping us in disasters, so I'm hopeful," said Brown, a Democrat. "Tragedies bring people together." 

The White House said early Sunday morning that the president had approved the disaster declaration.

Mr. Trump tweeted Sunday that the wildfires are "being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized." He said the water is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.

The president also called for clearing trees to stop the fires from spreading.

Brown's call for help came shortly before authorities called on residents in Glenn and Colusa counties in Northern California to evacuate as a wildfire there continues to grow. 

Cal Fire issued the evacuation order Saturday night for people who live in several parts of the counties, including an area just east of the boundary of Mendocino National Forest. The blaze, known as the Mendocino Complex fire, has grown to 357 square miles and is 32 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. 

The National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts hot and windy conditions to persist in Northern California. 

There are 18 major fires burning throughout California, authorities said. In all, they have destroyed hundreds of homes, killed nine people — including four firefighters — and shut down Yosemite National Park.

"Park administrators and fire managers have made the decision to extend the current park closures indefinitely. Fire managers are continuously assessing conditions in the area and will work directly with and will immediately advise park managers as conditions change and it becomes safe to reopen," the agency said in a statement.

The park service says the parts of Yosemite that will remain closed include Yosemite Valley, El Portal Road, Wawona Road, Big Oak Flat Road, Glacier Point, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias, Wawona Campground, Crane Flat Campground and Tamarack Campground.

Hundreds of colleagues, family and friends attended a memorial service Saturday in Fresno for National Forest Service Capt. Brian Hughes, the Fresno Bee reported. Hughes was killed July 29 by a falling tree while fighting the wildfire at Yosemite National Park.

Firefighters have achieved 41 percent containment of that forest fire. 

The fire had reached into remote areas of the country's third-oldest national park. Workers who live in Yosemite's popular Valley region were ordered to leave Friday because of inaccessible roads. 

The biggest blazes continue to burn north of San Francisco, including twin wildfires fueled by dry vegetation and hot, windy weather. Those fires destroyed 55 homes and forced thousands of residents to flee their neighborhoods about 100 miles north of the city. They have grown to a combined 300 square miles. 

The two fires have charred an area of the forested, rural area five times the size of San Francisco and were only 27 percent contained. Thousands of people remain evacuated. 

The NWS issued red flag warnings of critical fire weather conditions through Saturday night, saying a series of dry low-pressure systems passing through the region could bring wind gusts of up to 35 mph that could turn small fires or even sparks into racing walls of flames.

"This is a particularly dangerous situation with extremely low humidity and high winds. New fires will grow rapidly out of control, in some cases people may not be able to evacuate safely in time should a fire approach," the weather service said in its bulletin for the Mendocino area north of San Francisco.

Meteorologist Steve Anderson said temperatures will remain in the 90s in the region throughout the week with wind gusts reaching 25 mph during the day Sunday.

"It's not good firefighting weather," Anderson said.

More evacuations were ordered Saturday afternoon for an area of Mendocino and Lake counties where the week-old twin fires are threatening about 9,000 homes. The largest of the two fires was 50 percent contained.

The fire remained several miles from the evacuated communities along the eastern shore of Clear Lake, but "it looks like there's dicey weather on the way," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Jane LaBoa said.

However, most evacuations were lifted by Saturday in and around Redding, where armies of firefighters and fleets of aircraft continue battling an immense blaze about 100 miles south of the Oregon line. Some areas on the fire's southeastern flank were reopened to residents.

The fire near Redding, which killed seven people and incinerated 1,067 homes, started two weeks ago with sparks from the steel wheel of a towed-trailer's flat tire, Department of Agriculture and Fire Prevention officials said.

The blaze is currently 41 percent contained.

The fire burned slowly for days before winds suddenly whipped it up last week and drove it furiously through brush and timber.

It burned so furiously on July 26 that it created what is called a fire whirl. The twirling tower of flame reached speeds of 143 mph, which rivaled some of the most destructive Midwest tornadoes, NWS meteorologist Duane Dykema said. The whirl uprooted trees and tore roofs from homes, Dykema said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the blaze had blackened nearly 206 square miles.

"Fire season is really just beginning," Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott said.