As Biden struggles, Harris touts California wildfire aid

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FILE - Vice President Kamala Harris, left, sitting next to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, speaks during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, on June 30, 2021, with cabinet officials and governors from Western states to discuss drought and wildfires. Vice President Kamala Harris is returning to California to highlight federal wildfire programs. Harris will be in San Bernardino on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, to spotlight federal dollars for disaster relief, including $600 million from the Forest Service for California. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – After a difficult first year in office, Vice President Kamala Harris enjoyed a homecoming of sorts Friday, taking a helicopter tour in Southern California mountains to highlight new funding for federal wildfire programs.

She was joined by Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Sen. Alex Padilla — both Harris' friends and fellow Democrats — on a day when they inspected wildfire damage from the sky, visited a federal fire station where they heard about the increasing risk of destructive blazes and outlined new spending aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires and dealing with their aftermath.

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She also announced $600 million in disaster relief funding for the U.S. Forest Service in California.

In brief remarks, the vice president hailed the work of firefighters and credited collaboration between governments “unencumbered by politics,” an apparent reference to past friction between heavily Democratic California and the Trump administration.

She said the government is “putting the resources where they are needed” in the battle against fires and climate change.

The day was not entirely without political drama. A sprinkle of protesters joined onlooking along the motorcade's route to the fire station, where at the entrance a lone protester waved a U.S. flag and shouted a derogatory slogan about Biden.

Harris' first year in office was framed by the pandemic, a fruitless battle over voting rights legislation and an immigration crisis at the border. The trip to her home state gave Harris a chance to revel in hearty applause. She and the Biden administration were praised repeatedly for their direction on wildfires and the climate.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called her leadership “unmatched.”

Harris’ visit comes at a time when President Joe Biden’s approval rating is sliding, Democrats are at risk of losing control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections and Harris continues to struggle to define her role in the administration.

Her office highlighted recent legislation that provided $1 billion to create plans to help defend communities from wildfires. There also is $650 million for rehabilitation efforts for burned areas, and nearly $2.4 billion for hazardous fuels management.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration said it will expand efforts to fight wildfires by thinning forests around “hot spots” where nature and neighborhoods collide.

As climate change dries out the U.S. West, administration officials said they have crafted a $50 billion plan to more than double the use of controlled fires and logging to reduce trees and other vegetation that serves as tinder in the most at-risk areas. Only some of the work has funding so far.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of a dozen California lawmakers said they will push to add more than 1,100 new professional wildland firefighters amid the recent epic wildfire seasons, with a dwindling pool of inmates to help fight the blazes.

The state has had historic wildfire seasons in recent years, including last year when for the first time two massive fires crossed the rocky bastion of the Sierra Nevada, with one of them threatening tourist destinations along Lake Tahoe.

Of the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history, eight were within the last five years.

The fire sieges have firefighters who work for the state’s firefighting agency working as much as 40 days in a row, increasing burnout and mental health issues, said the lawmakers and the union representing wildland firefighters.

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