Bush visits as California burns

Tony D'Souza
President Bush greets Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Redding Mayor Mary Stegall shortly after Air Force One landed at the Redding Municipal Airport Thursday afternoon. The first sitting president to arrive in Redding since John F. Kennedy, Bush came for a briefing on the wildfires from state and local officials. He also visited with smoke jumpers, and boarded a helicopter to tour devastated areas in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

After nearly a week of on the ground security preparation by the Secret Service, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department, the Redding Police, and other agencies, at 2:12 p.m. Air Force One made a low sweep northward through the smoke over the Redding Municipal Airport Thursday afternoon, banked slowly, and touched down in a swirl of yellow dust.

Moments later, the 747 carrying the nation’s Commander-in-Chief rolled to a stop before a grandstand of dozens of television and print media as security snipers looked on from the rooftops of nearby buildings.

The atmosphere was decidedly subdued for the arrival to Redding of the first sitting president since John F. Kennedy; for how embattled this president has been, only a handful of protestors stood outside the airport to greet George W. Bush with their usual placards. Fifty plus Bush-backers also came out to voice their support as traffic became snarled all around the airport with locals hoping to catch a glimpse of the president in his last six months of office.

Bush, who attended the Washington DC funeral of his former press secretary Tony Snow in the morning, skipped his standard business suit for a light dress shirt and slacks, and waved to the media as he descended the steps of Air Force One.

On hand to greet him was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Redding Mayor Mary Stegall. After a photo-op on the tarmac with three Eagle Scouts currently participating in the North State with the US Forest Service in the largest national service project since World War II, Bush and Schwarzenegger received a briefing on the wildfires from state and local officials, visited with smoke jumpers, and boarded a helicopter to tour devastated areas in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

To date, more than 2,000 wildfires have burned nearly 900,000 acres in the single largest fire event in California’s history.

In a statement released to the press, Governor Schwarzenegger said, “[California has] been able to obtain and utilize resources from the federal government, 40 states and a number of international partners. We face more challenges in the hot and dry summer months ahead – as we help people put their lives back together and stay prepared for inevitable future fires – and I look forward to the President continuing to be our partner in this effort.”

Since July 9 when the Governor asked the President for additional equipment and manpower, federal resources allocated to California include 301 fire trucks, 12 fixed-wing aircraft, 50 helicopters, and more than 3,500 personnel. In total, 80% of US fire resources have been deployed in California.

Outside the security cordon, the few dozen onlookers included a flag-waving Thu Thi Berry of Red Bluff, a Republican campaign volunteer. “I came here to welcome the President of the United States, to support him, and support our country,” Berry said.

Jessica Grant, 22, of Redding stood in the shade of a tree with her three young sons. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and my kids”

Roger Williams of Mount Shasta happened upon the President’s visit by chance. Returning from a vacation in Orlando, Williams described the scene inside the airport as, “Chaotic,” and Mike Jindra, 28, of Redding held his eighteen-month-old son Jacob and explained why he had come out by saying, “I was just curious. I voted for him. I don’t know about it anymore, you know.”

After touring affected areas including the Moon and Motion fires, the President and Schwarzenegger returned to the airport where they, along with Senator Diane Feinstein and Representatives John Doolittle and Wally Herger, met with local fire crews from Anderson, Shasta Lake City, Keswick, Fall River Mills, and Bella Vista.

Of his visit with the President, Jack Rolls, Senior Firefighter of Bella Vista Volunteer Company #33, said, “He looked you right in your eye. He looked at your name tag and called you by your first name. He said, ‘What would we do without you volunteers?’” Rolls went on to say, “Meeting the President was something I’ve never even thought about in my wildest imagination. I never imagined any situation where I would meet the President of the United States, the Governor, a Representative and a Senator all in the span of 30 seconds.”

Rolls and his crew have been working to contain the Motion fire. Among those reluctant to see the President’s visit end were Mark Hendricks, 20, Jake Wellman, 18, and Alex Braden, 20, the Eagle Scouts who shook the President’s hand earlier in the day. According to Wellman, “The President thanked us. He told the Governor to watch out, that we were going to take his job soon.” Hendricks added, “He said that we’re the leaders of the future.”

At the end of his visit, Bush continued on to Napa to speak at a political event expected to raise $850,000 for the Republican National Committee.