Bush promises Cal. fire aid

WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) -- President Bush mobilized the federal emergency assistance establishment Tuesday on behalf of Southern California officials struggling with devastating wildfires that are forecast to get bigger.

Bush briefly departed from his scheduled war on terror speech at the National Defense University to offer prayers for those losing houses and businesses, or about to.

"All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes," he said. "We send the help of the federal government."

Bush spoke Monday with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hours later, just before 4 a.m. EDT, he declared a federal emergency for seven California counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts.

The president also sent top federal disaster officials to California to see what more could be done from Washington. FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, were expected to land on the West Coast in early evening.

The White House announced that Mr. Bush is cancelling his St. Louis speech Thursday and will spend the day in California consulting on wildfires, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

It has become common practice for the president to visit the scene of big disasters fairly quickly.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the federal government is applying lessons learned from a disaster that deeply damaged Bush's presidency, Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005, to do a better job now. Such an improved response, mainly in terms of swift communication with state and local officials, has been evident in previous disasters, such as after tornadoes in Kansas and Alabama, and a major bridge collapse in Minnesota, she said.

"Clearly those lessons were learned, and they're being applied," Perino added.

To dramatize federal efforts and head off any suggestion of indifference of the kind that dogged Bush after Katrina, Perino showed slides at her daily briefing that detailed Washington's contribution so far in California. It includes 32 firefighting crews and dozens of fire engines from the Agriculture Department, 1,239 federal firefighters, 25,000 cots and 280,000 bottles of water.

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer complained on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the ability of the state's National Guard to respond to disasters like the fires has been compromised because too much of its equipment and personnel are committed in Iraq.

Perino said there are other places to get the needed resources to do the job.

"When you are a nation at war you have to use assets available to you and sometimes those come from the National Guard," Perino said. "The president has said we will get them what they need."

The dozen wildfires in California have burned more than 700 homes and set 245,957 acres, 384 square miles, ablaze. At least 270,000 people have been evacuated. The wildfires have claimed at least one life and injured dozens, many firefighters. Forecasts call for hotter temperatures and high winds that most expect to dramatically increase the destruction.

Posted by KO

The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.