Second-guessing first responses

Today, Rider and Carson discuss the difference between local and federal responses to the fires in San Diego. Yesterday, they pointed fingers at the city's lack of preparedness, and later this week they'll discuss whether public policy is encouraging risky behavior, when and if the federal government should have a role in disaster management and more.

Pols left aircraft on the runway

Professor Carson,

While the 2007 state-local fire coordination certainly improved from the 2003 Cedar Fire that ravaged San Diego, that's not saying much, given the abysmal 2003 performance. For me, the real issue is where the coordination and planning did NOT improve — the timely use of Navy, Marine and National Guard air assets.

Here's the story:

In the 2003 San Diego area fires, frustrated Navy firefighting helicopter crews were grounded on the tarmac while officials from the California Department of Forestry (now renamed CAL FIRE) demanded helicopter maintenance records to verify the helos met state specs. Then when they finally were allowed to fly, they were required do practice drops on nonburning targets for a couple of days under bureaucratic supervision to satisfy state officials that they actually could do the job. When they finally were put into action, it was pretty much a "mopping up" operation.

The outrage was widespread. No one was madder than the military pilots and crews. Legislation was passed, new regulations put in place, and the bureaucratic kinks supposedly were ironed out.

Not exactly.

Turns out that safety-obsessed bureaucrats at CAL FIRE can always come up with ADDITIONAL regulations to delay timely air asset responses to fires. And delay they did. For more info on this multifaceted scandal, read this AP story.

It wasn't just the helos. Military C-130s, which can pack quite a firefighting wallop, have been scheduled since before the 2003 fires to be outfitted with water/retardant tanks. But none ever have met the exacting, picky government standards, so we are STILL waiting for these wonderful planes to become effective.

Not angry enough yet? A recent Orange County Register editorial recounts the tale of the big DC-10 firefighting jets that carry huge loads, but are not allowed to fight fires (with one solitary plane being the exception). Also, highly effective Russian bombers are available that have been retrofitted to fight fires, but they're not approved for use in the U.S.

It's popular to blame just the bureaucrats. But the truth is that the real responsibility rests with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and especially our San Diego County Board of Supervisors. They were ill-prepared to move quickly to get the air assets active. They were too busy holding news conferences and patting themselves on the back.

Indeed, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, who represents parts of Orange County, said 24 hours after the fires started that "San Diego was eligible for air support and [local officials] didn't even know it."

And yet — trust me on this — not one bureaucrat or politician will lose their job or their pension as a result of this big-time snafu, as we called such screw-ups in the service.

Oddly enough, the bulk of the problem was not the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the feds. FEMA is largely useless as first-line defenders against fires. Always will be. FEMA is mainly good at giving away money after the fires have done their damage.

Here's the bottom line: San Diego County SHOULD have the world's best air asset response to a big fire. We have not one, not two, but THREE military bases with dozens of firefighting helos and trained crews. Yet we can't get them in the air during the crucial first 48 hours of a fire, when they could be the most effective. Only severe government incompetence can negate such wonderful firefighting capability.

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

Where was the Forest Service?


I could not agree with you more that (a) the federal response was disastrously slow, and that (b) the state and local government bears substantial responsibility for this slow response. We are also in agreement that FEMA was practically useless in the early days of the fire, and that the military was anxious to help out and should have been allowed to do so. You are, however, much too quick to let FEMA and the military off the hook, and you left out the U.S. Forest Service altogether.

San Diego's leaders clearly have not come to grips with how to stop a major wildfire racing toward the city. I suspect the city in that regard is by no means unique among large metropolitan areas in the West. Local and state officials appeared coordinated in news conferences this time because they had decided who was going to be in charge and had developed plans on how to use locally available firefighting resources. Good coordination locally at the start of a big fire is very different from having a plan to get the additional resources needed to stop it. Here they failed.

Setting wildfires in the West has long been seen as one of the major things terrorists could do with minimal resources. FEMA's failure to have a plan for mobilizing the federal firefighting assets of the U.S. Forest Service and the military in a timely manner leads one to ask if FEMA's only real function is, as you say, to "give away money after the fires."

Who has the firefighting resources that could have been brought in quickly? The U.S. Forest Service had a large number of permanent and seasonal employees who fight fires, primarily in the Pacific Northwest and mountain regions. They also have the equipment, planes and experience. The military has resources but they are less relevant and less useful than they should be.

The guiding principle when faced with a fire that has the potential to overwhelm a major urban area is that you throw at it everything you can lay your hands on. Rep. Duncan Hunter clearly deserves kudos for stepping in to work out conditions under which CAL FIRE could let the military help. The fact that he needed to do so speaks volumes about the nature of the problem.

Someone on site has to have the authority to relax the usual rules of engagement for wildfires, and someone close to the firefighting efforts has to be able to order up military aircraft without having to go through four levels of Pentagon bureaucracy. It is clearly frustrating for our local military bases to watch their city burn without being able to help. The U.S. Navy played a major role in dealing with fire after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco; the initiative seized in the face of that disaster would shock today's rule-sticklers.

The military's problem is that there is too little attention devoted to "getting" ready to help fight fires in the West when there is no immediate crisis. The fact that the new tanker system for the C-130 transport plane is just starting to be delivered is an indication that this is not a priority.

Major urban areas in the West such as San Diego need a plan to quickly deploy U.S. Forest Service and military firefighting resources. The way to make such a plan work is to have large-scale dress rehearsals to iron out the kinks. Such practice runs are expensive, and no one wants to foot the bill, although we seem happy to have FEMA pay out vastly larger amounts later.

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

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