California Gov. Jerry Brown responds to deadly wildfires from afar

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173922 full

Gov. Jerry Brown has remained a background player as one of the worst series of wildfires in California history tears across the state's wine country and beyond.

He's yet to visit the fire zones, preferring to stay in Sacramento, where he's issued emergency declarations, requested federal disaster relief and commented on the deadly fires at press conferences for bill signings and in one visit to the state's central Office of Emergency Services.

"The last thing we want to do is distract from the work that needs to be done," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said Thursday. Brown will visit some of the fire sites, which have ravaged parts of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties, "when the time is right," he said.

That fits with Brown's response to past California disasters. When terrorists killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December 2015, Brown waited a day before visiting the city. Earlier this year, he waited more than a week to travel to Oroville after the emergency spillway of the nation's tallest dam collapsed, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate.

It's a departure from the way many governors and mayors handle disasters. When Hurricane Irma slammed Florida last month Gov. Rick Scott was a fixture on TV, providing updates on damage and the government's response. A decade ago, when a devastating series of fires struck Southern California, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made frequent appearances on television and visited fire scenes within the first two days of the disaster.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California, said such public showings don't fit Brown's profile.

"I'm not at all sure what he could do on site other than be the consoler-in-chief and that's, quite frankly, what's being expected of our leaders at every level more and more," she said.

Brown first commented publicly on the fires Monday at a bill signing ceremony and then spent much of that day and Tuesday working to secure federal disaster relief, Westrup said.

He made his first fire-specific public appearance on Wednesday, three days after the blazes began, with a trip to the state's emergency operations headquarters in Sacramento. There, he greeted first responders and offered brief remarks on the firefight and the destructive forces of climate change, while mostly letting state emergency and military officials handle the briefing.

"The governor has been integrally involved," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of California emergency services. "He was here, we are on the phone with him multiple times a day."

Brown has cancelled a scheduled appearance Friday in Nevada at a clean energy summit to focus on the fires, Westrup said.

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