Source AP ©

Bush to view fire devastation in California

President Bush prepares to visit Southern California scorched out by wildfires. Bush stated that the U.S. government was committed to help everyone who left their homes seeking safety.

"We'll continue to make sure that our efforts are coordinated, that we are responsive to the needs and people," Bush said Wednesday after a special Cabinet meeting. "And most importantly, I want the people in Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them."

Bush expected to arrive in California by midmorning Thursday. He was scheduled to take a helicopter tour of the wildfire damage and visit a San Diego neighborhood. Bush then was to travel north to Escondido to assess that area's damage and offer a statement about recovery efforts. He planned lunch with emergency responders before returning to Washington later in the day.

The fires have destroyed about 1,500 homes since Sunday and led to the largest evacuation in California history. The flames have burned at least 431,000 acres across five counties, from Ventura in the north all the way into Mexico. Property damage has reached at least $1 billion (EUR 700 million) in San Diego County alone, and Bush has signed a major disaster declaration for California.

The fires are the first natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the White House is determined to convey a picture of a speedy and effective response.

Memories still linger of the government's failed response to that Gulf Coast storm and how it hurt Bush's standing.

The tricky matter of when to time a presidential tour - one that itself commands state and local resources - was one the White House had to work through.

The White House did not want Bush's presence to interfere with emergency response efforts this week.

After consulting with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush decided that Thursday was the right time to get a direct look and comfort to victims.

Bush's disaster declaration set in motion long-term federal recovery programs, some requiring matches from the state, to help state and local governments, families, individuals and certain nonprofit organizations recover.

The assistance varies from direct aid for uninsured losses to help with rebuilding infrastructure.

Based on his initial briefings, Bush sounded satisfied with his administration's performance.

"I know we're getting the manpower and assets on the ground that have been requested by the state and local governments," he told reporters.

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