SAN BERNARDINO, California — After a difficult first year in office, Vice President Kamala Harris enjoyed a kind of homecoming on Friday, taking a helicopter tour of the mountains of Southern California to highlight new funding for federal wildfire programs.
She was joined by Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Sen. Alex Padilla — both friends of Harris and Democrats — on a day as they inspected wildfire damage from the sky and visited a federal fire station, where they heard about the increasing threat of destructive flames and outlined new issues , aimed at reducing the risk of forest fires and managing their consequences.
She also announced $600 million in disaster relief for the US Forest Service in California.
In brief remarks, the vice president praised the work of the firefighters and credited the cooperation between governments “unencumbered by politics,” an apparent reference to past frictions between heavily Democratic California and the Trump administration.
She said the government is “putting resources where they’re needed” in the fight against fires and climate change.
The day was not entirely without political drama. A few protesters joined the motorcade on its way to the fire station, where at the entrance, a lone protester waved a US flag and shouted a derogatory slogan about Biden.
Harris’ first year in office was framed by the pandemic, a fruitless struggle over voting rights legislation and an immigration crisis at the border. The trip to her home state gave Harris a chance to bask in hearty applause. She and the Biden administration have been repeatedly lauded for their direction on wildfires and the climate.
US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called their leadership “unmatched”.
Harris’ visit comes at a time when President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting, Democrats are at risk of losing control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, and Harris continues to struggle to maintain her role in the administration define.
Her office highlighted recent legislation that provided $1 billion to create plans to protect communities from wildfires. Add to that $650 million for burned area cleanup efforts and nearly $2.4 billion for hazardous fuel management.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration said it would expand efforts to fight wildfires by thinning forests around “hot spots” where nature and neighborhoods collide.
As climate change dries the western US, government officials said they have drawn up a $50 billion plan to more than double the use of controlled fires and deforestation to reduce trees and other vegetation growing in the hardest used as tinder in vulnerable areas. Only part of the work has been funded so far.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of a dozen California lawmakers said they will push to add more than 1,100 new professional forest firefighters amid the recent epic wildfire season, with dwindling inmate numbers, to help fight the blazes.
The state has had historic wildfire seasons in recent years, including last year when two massive fires crossed the rocky bastion of the Sierra Nevada for the first time, one of which threatened tourist destinations on Lake Tahoe.
Of the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history, eight have occurred in the past five years.
The fire sieges have firefighters working for the state fire department up to 40 days straight, fueling burnout and mental health problems, lawmakers and the union that represents wilderness firefighters said.