Feds and fire

FiresDisasters and AccidentsWildfiresPoliticsRegional AuthorityState Budgets

Today, Rider and Carson debate the role of the federal government in firefighting and relief. Previously, they assessed the propriety of public fire insurance, the difference between the local and the federal response to the San Diego fires, and the city's lack of preparedness. Later this week, they'll debate the federal government's disaster responsibility and development in fire-prone areas.

Only as a last resort By Richard Rider
Professor Carson,

First, let me say that you were correct when you said I didn't assess enough blame on FEMA and the feds. I bow to your expertise in this matter. I let 'em off too easy.

FEMA should get its ass(ets) in gear. It needs to be more mobile and anticipatory. Even when it guesses wrong in repositioning firefighting planes (based on forecasts), the increased timeliness in response to fires would be worth many times the relatively minor cost of making mistakes. Unfortunately, like any bureaucracy, planning ahead is a weak point for FEMA bureaucrats.

While FEMA's timely firefighting assistance seems like an intractable problem, the quick use of regional military firefighting aircraft SHOULD have been settled years ago. Indeed, we all thought it WAS settled years ago. Apparently not.

Local use of military aircraft to fight fires should be pre-cleared with the Pentagon labyrinth. All that the D.C. brass and bureaucrats should get is an "Oh, BTW" e-mail detailing the great publicity the local military was getting for helping out communities in time of need.

Should the feds be the disaster relief Sugar Daddy? No.

Ideally, disaster relief would be voluntary — through the Red Cross and other philanthropic institutions best geared to providing aid in times of need. In addition to not requiring force to obtain funding (taxes), such organizations are far more effective in getting the aid to the truly needy in a timely and efficient manner. If we were not forced to "give at the office" (through taxes) for the government aid programs — and then assuming that the aid problem is taken care of — most of us would contribute far more to such charitable organizations.

If government must be involved in such efforts, it should first be the local jurisdictions, and then the state. Federal aid is too easily politicized, going to the states or constituencies with the greatest juice in D.C. rather than to the most needy. For example, consider the billions we pay annually for absurd crop subsidies to help "needy" wealthy farmers and agribusinesses.

In addition, government aid — especially federal aid — discourages self-reliance and prudent prevention of predictable misfortune. Not only individuals, but cities and states sometimes abdicate their responsibilities, knowing that the feds will take care of the cost if things go bad. This should not be the American way.

Richard Rider is chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters, a grass-roots taxpayer organization. A businessman and retired Naval Reserve commander, Rider has written dozens of ballot arguments against raising taxes and issuing municipal bonds.


The second line of defenseBy Richard Carson
Richard,

Again we agree on several of the key issues. FEMA is still a mess and still has a clean-up-after-the-disaster mentality rather than focusing on how to prevent a situation from turning into a disaster. Local military aircraft should have been allowed into the fight very early, when they would have been most effective. The public was deceived about this issue having been solved.

Where we are in substantive disagreement is over when the federal government should get involved, and the extent to which voluntary organizations can be relied upon.

The federal government should be the second line of defense after local firefighting forces (including local U.S. Forest Service and military resources) fail to stop the fire during the first day. If, given the speed and direction of the Santa Ana winds, it is likely that the fire will soon enter a major urban area, then the ONLY relevant question becomes what resources will it take to stop the fire from doing so?

In answering that question, it becomes obvious that the federal government is the only party at the table that has the resources and the ability to get them there quickly enough to matter. Three key factors come into play.

First, the climate conditions that gave rise to the Cedar fire in 2003 and the Witch Creek fire in 2007 occur in a fairly short interval during the fall, and are usually accompanied by advanced warning of several days. This means that the relevant firefighting resources can be put on standby alert.

Second, these conditions give rise to multiple fires throughout the region. This makes it inadvisable to rely on local neighbors, because pulling too many firefighting forces out of position means other new area fires cannot be quickly attacked. Third, if local firefighters fail to contain the fire during the first day, then the best time to stop the fire from advancing toward the city is the next morning. During the night, the fire will have calmed down because the winds diminish and the temperature drops. The course of the fire can then be plotted and the best location to stop it determined.

Only the feds, with the U.S. Forest Service and the military, can get there overnight. A virtual armada of aerial tankers needs to be launched within a couple of hours after the call for help goes out, accompanied by heavy transport planes loaded up with firefighters and equipment. The U.S. Forest Service has thousands of firefighters under contract, and the Marines have a brigade specially trained to fight fires. Federal and state officials, if they actually want to stop a fire rather than dole out aid afterward, should figure how to change bureaucratic procedures and set up quick reaction chains of command to get these resources here overnight rather than four days later.

California firefighters outside of Southern California best serve as the third wave. They can start driving equipment down from Northern California once the fires break out. These firefighters can then serve two critical roles. First, as relief for local firefighters who will have been fighting the fires nonstop for almost two days, and second, they can be diverted to new fires that inevitably break out.

Lastly, the shelter capacity of the Red Cross was quickly exhausted even though the great majority of evacuees were taken in by friends. If substantially more of the area had needed to have been evacuated — which would have been the case if the winds had stayed up another day — the situation would have looked nothing like the happy campers at the overflow shelter at Qualcomm.

Richard Carson is an environmental and natural resource economist at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies natural disasters, among other things.

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