Tuesday, July 08, 2008

California Is Burning...Again!

Federal Engines Sit Idle as Agencies Seek Additional Firefighters
by Lou Angeli

Big Sur, CA (July 8, 2008) -- With dry winds and low humidity in the forecast, the day doesn’t seem to be a promising one for firefighters working wildland blazes on California’s central coast. The Basin Complex Fire in the Los Padres National Forest has currently destroyed 74,985 acres and is only 11 percent contained. The Basin Complex fire was started by lightning and is burning away at one of the nation’s most beautiful destinations, Big Sur. Scenic Highway 1 remains closed and the towns of Big Sur and Carmel are threatened and evacuations are in place.

Not far south in the Los Padres, the Gap Fire has already taken 9,924 acres and although it is 30 percent contained, today's heat and low humidity may reverse the progress that firefighters had made. The Gap fire is located six miles northwest of Santa Barbara and is endangering communities, cultural and historical resources, like J. Paul Getty’s home. Evacuations are in order there as well.

The US Forest Service believes that Gap fire were intentionally set and has asked the general public for its help in investigating those blazes.

“The information the public provides could be crucial to our investigation into who is responsible," said Forest Service Special Agent Heather Campbell.

These high-profile fires at each end of Los Padres National Forest — in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties — are among 330 state blazes burning out of control statewide. So far, about 1,800 fires have burned over 600,000 acres of forests and woodlands and there is no relief in sight. Fires continue to burn statewide in what many predict will be California’s most damaging wildfire season in decades.

The nation's fire preparedness level on Sunday remained at Level 5, indicating firefighting resources are at their most strained.The idea of fighting so many fires simultaneously is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that stats for national, state and local agencies are tallied separately. So how many firefighters, engines and helicopters are working?

At the state level, CalFire (CDF) reports 20,000 plus firefighters operating aboard 1420 engines and in 420 hand crews. The state also has 300 bulldozers, over 400 water tankers and nearly 100 helicopters operating on the frontlines.

National Interagency Fire Command, which coordinates the activities of federal firefighting resources from its headquarters in Boise, Idaho, reports another 10,000 federal firefighters working in California, with 400 plus engines, 50 helicopters and National Guard C-130’s from Sacramento, Charlotte, Cheyenne, and Colorado Springs.

There are so many fast-moving fires, that they often travel through local fire districts in just a day – sometimes hours. Factor in crews and apparatus from city and county departments that protect areas along the coast, including Carmel, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara City and County, and dozens of volunteer agencies, and the total number of working firefighters easily totals 50,000.

It’s been some time since the nation has stood at Level 5 Firefighting Preparedness, and firefighters and resources from as far away as Delaware and Puerto Rico have arrived to serve on the frontlines.

One firefighter safety watchdog group claims that the Federal firefighting system is understaffed. At the start of the season, only 2/3s of the US Forest Service's 275 engines were staffed.

"The federal fire system is imploding in California. They are crossing their fingers and just hoping they get through the season without a disaster," said Casey Judd, who represents government firefighters from five agencies through the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.

In an interview with the Monterey County Herald, Judd notes that the US Forest Service is 500 firefighters short of its 5,000-member allotment for the Central California region. He argues that Federal firefighters are working alongside CalFire and Municipal colleagues for less money, so many seasonal firefighting personnel stay home and work at odd jobs.

With Level 5 staffing already in place – compared to last season’s 2 or 3 at the height of the San Diego fires – both federal and state government will need to consider additional outsourcing, and red-card training of out-of-state municipal crews. Such needs become extremely critical when you combine current conditions with the strong potential for wildfires in populated areas of southern California, which have not yet begun to burn.
So here's an invitation to firefighters nationwide to train for their red card and vacation in sunny California.



firefighter08 said...

Hey Lou - As a former firefighter, none of this should be a surprise to you. You could start a daily column about fire in CA.
I live in Malibu and have written a novel about wildland firefighters and am a wildland fire expert.
We have had some ferocious fires here every year. Each year the fires are coming earlier, getting worse, and lasting longer. Soon CA will have a full 12 month fire season. (Our Governator just discovered this fact last week)
Each year we hear, "unusually dry season, low rainfall, etc." That's the norm! The fire services are doing all they can, but there is still a terrible loss of property. There are several basic issues-
>Accumulated brush which hasn't burned in 20+ years and forests infested with diseased trees
> Increased development on the urban-wildland interface
> Power poles over weighted with fiber-optic cable which come down in the wind.
>Everyone everywhere expecting full fire protection at no cost
>Climate changes
>Lunatics who think it would be fun to set something on fire.

It aint gonna be pretty
Kurt Kamm

Lou Angeli said...

Hi Kurt,

Many thanks for your expert commentary. Just a note, I should be receiving my copy of the book in the next 48 hours. Looking forward to the read.