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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Federal Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday said the federal government is committed to helping Sonoma County and other fire-ravaged areas in California rebuild following the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history.

“We will be here, arms locked with state and local officials, to help California recover from the fires,” Nielsen said Wednesday after visiting three burned-out areas around Santa Rosa, including a scorched cul-de-sac in Coffey Park.

Nielsen, who recently took the helm of a department with over 240,000 employees, was in her second day touring burned areas in Southern and Northern California.

On Tuesday, she spoke with fire survivors and took an aerial tour of damage from the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. That inferno claimed two lives, burned more than 440 square miles and destroyed more than 700 homes. President Donald Trump recently declared that fire a federal disaster, the same action taken last fall for the North Bay wildfires.

On Wednesday, she visited Northern California, where October wildfires claimed 40 lives and destroyed more than 6,000 homes in the North Bay, including 5,130 homes in Sonoma County. The visit including meetings with supervisors from Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, as well as with Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey.

“It was very important for me to come out myself to see the damage,” she told a gathering of print and broadcast reporters gathered Wednesday afternoon at the end of View Court north of Hopper Avenue. Behind her, two burned cars sat without tires on driveways flanked by blackened oaks and evergreens.

Earlier she met Mark West Union School District Superintendent Ron Calloway in the burned residential area near John Riebli Elementary School in Larkfield north of Santa Rosa. She later spoke with Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner at the destroyed site of city Fire Station 5 in Fountaingrove.

She ended the morning by touring Coffey Park and meeting with residents affected by the fire.

To date FEMA has provided nearly $14.1 million in grants to individuals or households impacted by the California fires, officials said Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Small Business Administration has granted loans of nearly $116.2 million to homeowners and renters and an additional $8.7 million to businesses.

Not included is the federal contribution toward the hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to fight the fire and to address what Nielsen said is “one of the largest debris-clearing missions in California’s history.” She reported that the amount of material hauled away to date from burned home sites “is equal to the weight of four-fifths of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“That is a tremendous amount of debris,” she said, “and we’re only just beginning.”

Nielsen won Senate confirmation last month. Already she has visited disaster areas in Puerto Rico and Texas.

During a 10-minute meeting with reporters, Nielsen responded to a question on California’s new sanctuary law, which forbids state and local law enforcement agencies from sharing information about undocumented immigrants unless they have been convicted of one or more of 800 specific crimes. California legislators called the law necessary to protect immigrants in response to the Trump administration’s threat of deportations.

Nielsen suggested California and states with similar laws were providing “sanctuaries for criminal aliens.”

“We have to find a way to work with the states to ensure that our communities are safe. When we aren’t able to pick up criminals in a safe setting such as a jail, we then have to go into the communities, which puts everyone in danger,” she said.

Her comments came a day after Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on Fox News specifically criticized the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in the case of an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who allegedly killed his girlfriend in August after he was released from the county jail. Homan, who reports to Nielsen, contended that law enforcement agencies should detain such immigrants when ICE seeks to take them into custody.

“Sonoma County didn’t honor the detainer,” Homan said. “What happened? Two weeks later he killed that girl.”

The Sheriff’s Office contends it would be unconstitutional to hold people beyond their scheduled time of release without more than an administrative request on immigration grounds from a federal agency.

“If ICE wants an immigrant detained after their incarceration period is over, they can get a warrant signed by a judge like any other law enforcement agency,” sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum said Wednesday in a prepared response to the ICE chief’s comments.

Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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