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FEMA has kept a lower profile in Camp Fire than after hurricanes. Here’s the reason.

Camp Fire evacuees remain at Walmart tent city. We ask one family, why?

A look at a family that chose to camp in the parking lot at Walmart in Chico instead of going to an organized shelter, Monday, November 19, 2018.
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A look at a family that chose to camp in the parking lot at Walmart in Chico instead of going to an organized shelter, Monday, November 19, 2018.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has directed far less resources to helping California cope with the devastating Camp Fire than it typically sends to states dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane, or other natural disasters. But experts say that’s by design, as California’s robust disaster response planning and operations make the feds less necessary in the early stages of fighting a disaster.

FEMA, which is tasked with coordinating federal agencies in responding to a disaster, has so far issued fewer than 25 task orders to federal agencies for an estimated $1.5 million worth of assistance since the California wildfires were declared a major disaster on November 12, according to FEMA’s database of daily mission assignments.

That’s a far cry from the more than 140 orders FEMA issued in the first five days after Hurricane Florence was declared a major disaster on September 14, which collectively were estimated to cost more than $200 million.

The Camp Fire has so far claimed more than 81 lives and destroyed more than 13,500 homes and nearly 5,000 other structures, forcing those displaced to seek shelter in makeshift sleeping arrangements, such as the so-called “Wallyworld” camp in a Walmart parking lot in Chico. Experts estimate the fire could ultimately cause more than $7 billion in damages.

By contrast, Hurricane Florence, which flooded large swaths of North and South Carolina has ultimately claimed more than 50 lives, and wreaked more than $20 billion worth of damage. Experts say that differential response is, in part, because the immediate response to a hurricane – with pre-positioned food and water and search and rescue teams deployed to help find survivors – is more predictable than for a fast-moving wildfire.

“I don’t think that the MO for wildfires is a clear as the response to hurricanes,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

While FEMA has directed some specialized support to aid the state’s response — such as providing aerial footage of the wildfires through the Department of Defense and the Air Force — the feds are largely leaving the fire fighting and mitigation to state and local fire departments.

FEMA has begun its work providing relief to victims of the fire and establishing intake centers for processing requests from individuals whose homes were destroyed in the fire. It has already approved more than $9 million worth of requests.

“Public Assistance is a part of the recovery process,” said FEMA spokesperson Lizzie Litzow. “FEMA starts working on Public Assistance very early in a disaster, but it takes a more visibly prominent role after the response phase is completed.”

“Firefighting, especially these complex massive wildfires is not for the faint of heart,” Redlener said. “The generic FEMA emergency response worker doesn’t have much to do with the immediate response.” California’s Office of Emergency Services, which is part of Governor Jerry Brown’s office, has coordinated that response among local fire departments in California and in other states.

The state has honed its response through years of combating wildfires, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for California’s Office of Emergency Services. “We have now created what is essentially a national response center for wildfires,” Alexander said.

That level of planning and preparation sets California apart from other large states, such as Texas, which experience a large number of natural disasters, said William Siembieda, a professor of city and regional planning at Cal Poly who’s part of the advisory team for the state’s emergency mitigation plan.

“The difference in California is that they have put money into planning and preparation and a lot of integration between agencies and in Texas its every county on its own,” Siembieda said.

But the reduced role that FEMA has played so far in responding to the California wildfires doesn’t mean the federal disaster agency isn’t doing its job.

“I think they’re doing what they need to be doing,” Siembieda said. And that’s providing financial support to towns and individuals for recovering, not helping put out the fire.

“They helped us establish a bigger, broader recovery plan,” Alexander, of the state emergency office, said. “We have been getting everything that we have asked of FEMA’s staff.”

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Ben Wieder is a data reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.