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Bush Tours Fire-Ravaged Southern California - 2003-11-04

President Bush has toured fire-ravaged sections of Southern California to inspect damage and view recovery efforts. Wildfires scorched more than 300,000 hectares before they were brought under control Tuesday. The president visited a community close to San Diego, where he praised firefighters and volunteers.

Mr. Bush toured the region by helicopter and met with families in the fire-stricken community of Harbison Canyon.

He later had praise for the volunteers, like a San Diego woman who had given 100 hours of her time to help evacuees who were fleeing the wildfires.

"There are people in your communities, when they hear that over 3,300 homes have been destroyed, they want to do something about it," the president said. "They want to help a neighbor in need. And so for all the great citizens of this wonderful state who have heard the call to love a neighbor just like you'd like to be loved yourself, who when they see somebody hurt, is willing to put their arm around a neighbor in need, I want to thank you from the bottom of our collective hearts."

At least 80,000 people were forced from their homes at the peak of the fires. Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for some mountain communities, and 27,000 people are still displaced in Southern California.

Federal officials have already distributed $3 million in emergency assistance to help Californians rebuild their homes and reopen their businesses. Mr. Bush said he did not come to bring additional aid but to ensure that available assistance is being disbursed effectively.

"The federal government's response is needed and necessary. I brought officials with me just to make sure it's active and vibrant," he said. "The state's response is needed and necessary. But the truth of the matter is, the best response is the response you hear from the citizens whose lives have been affected. The response: the refusal to give up, the notion that tomorrow can be a better day, the refusal to be defeated. And, after all, that is the spirit of America, isn't it."

The recently passed emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan also contains $500 million in disaster relief for California and for states affected by Hurricane Isabel. The death toll from the fires stands at 22 killed in California, including a firefighter, and two who died across the border in Mexico.

Direct damage from the fires is estimated to cost $2 billion. Indirect damages in lost profits and wages will be much higher.