U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris visits fire-ravaged Lake County

The Mendocino Complex fires hit their two-week milestone Friday, with the combined containment passing the halfway mark. 

Together the Ranch and River fires top 300,000 the largest in state history.

Thursday, as the last evacuation order was lifted, Lake County got a visit from Senator Kamala Harris.

"She just wanted to know how we're doing, and she was very encouraging," evacuee Melody Staats told KTVU, after chatting with Harris at the Twin Pines Casino in Middletown. 
The casino is one of three emergency shelters still operating in Lake County, although the need is dwindling. 

Two other shelters closed Thursday, as evacuees head home. 

"This can't be about politics, it's got to be about doing the right thing and helping people who are in need," said Harris, at the Cal-Fire station in Middletown, after leaving the casino.

Middletown is a half hour's drive to any fire damage.

The senator's staff said her schedule didn't allow time to travel into the actual fire zones, which stretch for miles between the outskirts of Lakeport and Clearlake Oaks. 

Harris's shelter visit and briefing by Cal-Fire chiefs were off-limit to the press, but the senator took questions at the fire station, flanked by first-responders.

"I'm hearing of great creativity, and a fight coming from this community," said Harris, "and that's something that should inspire all of us."

On the federal level, Harris spoke of bipartisan legislation that would reform how firefighting is funded.
Instead of drawing from U.S. Forest Service budgets, wildland fires would be treated like any other natural disaster under FEMA- the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For years, as fires have grown bigger and burned longer, forest management money has been raided to pay for firefighting.

As a result, funds for conservation and fuel reduction are depleted. 

"We can have a conversation about de-forestation, we can have a conversation about the millions of dead trees that are out there," said Harris, calling for thinner forests to mitigate wildfire risk. 

As Harris conducted her brief tour, residents were returning to the last evacuated area, the Spring Valley neighborhood of Clearlake Oaks. 

Dozens of homes there are destroyed or heavily damaged, and stunned residents were able to see it for the first time.  

Many of the homes survived the Pawnee Fire that burned through in late June-early July, only to be leveled this time, by the Ranch Fire.

KTVU found Spring Valley evacuee Jim McDole unloading his car, his home intact. 

"Everything that was dear to us after fifty years of marriage, boxes of pictures, and it's all fine," said McDole. 

But he choked up thinking about the devastation to people he cares about.  
"It's hard, with all the people up the valley, they're all friends of mine," said Jim, wiping his eyes.

Harris said she was hearing stories of courage and sacrifice. 

"What we all know is in these catastrophes, the angels among us just show up," she said from the podium. 

Among the local evacuees Harris met: ten year old Ezekiel Staats, who told her he's eager to go school shopping.

"She said that she hopes our house doesn't burn, and that we're brave, so we get a coin," said Ezekiel, showing off  commemorative challenge coins the senator gave to him and his sister Olivia. 

The two children and their mom have been evacuated from Spring Valley for a week, most of it spent with relatives.

They were tickled to meet the senator as she toured the shelter, although admitted to being unfamiliar with Harris.  

"I probably wouldn't have recognized her, probably not," said Melody Staats, "but I thought it was cool she wanted to talk to us and she spent quite a bit of time talking to me and the kids, listening to what we were going through."  

Harris, a possible Democratic challenger to President Trump in 2020, steered clear of discussing him.  
On Trump's recent tweet, accusing California of squandering firefighting water on the environment? 
"He was wrong," said Harris brusquely,"we can move on, but he was wrong, it was wrong, incorrect."

And when asked about the odds of her running for President ? 

"I'm here betting on the guys behind me to do everything that needs to happen to fight these fires," said Harris, laughing as she referred to the fire professionals lined up alongside her. 

Disaster assessment teams from FEMA are in Lake and Mendocino Counties documenting damage and losses, in preparation for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration.

If granted by President Trump, it would clear the way for federal assistance programs for individuals, businesses and infrastructure.   

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