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November 19, 2007

California Fires: The Blame Game Begins

California firefighters did an excellent job combating the wildfires in October. They had the help of the National Guard, the Navy, and the Marines to contain and extinguish 21 fires in difficult terrain and extreme weather conditions. Now that the fires are out (the last was put out November 9th), some folks just can't help but start assigning blame.

Here's the story. I'll tell you what it says, and then tell you the important things it left out.

Some lawmakers and military officials have claimed that California "did not effectively marshal all its available air resources" to end the fires. Two charges are made, the first explicit, the second implied. First, the AP believes that high winds did not ground aircraft during the first two days of the fires. Instead, they imply that California officials blamed high winds so as to cover up their own unpreparedness.

In large part, the article places the blame for grounded Marine and Navy helicopters on a California regulation that requires state fire spotters to be on board to manage the aircraft. It also questions the judgment of state fire officials who chose to keep some aircraft in reserve in other parts of the state in case new fires began.

Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, tries to defend:

The state has determined it had enough spotters for the helicopters it knew were available but had to scramble to find spotters for the Marine and some of the Navy helicopters because it wasn't expecting them, Padilla said.

"When we found out how many military and Marine helicopters were available, we put in orders and began trying to find qualified managers that weren't already assigned," he said.

The article concludes by noting that the rule requiring state fire spotters was dropped, but not until almost 2,000 homes had burned. And just in case you didn't get the message, here's the last paragraph:

Three years ago, a state firefighting panel said it should be a "high priority" to find ways to quickly get military helicopters and planes airborne during fast-moving wildfires.

Now, here's what they left out. The state firefighting panel referenced was convened after the October 2003 fires in Southern California. That same panel recommended the state fire spotter rule because the lack of coordination between state and military air resources led to wasteful duplication of effort and in a few cases endangered aircraft during that fire.

The rule was instituted in order to more efficiently and safely combat fires. It is to their credit that state fire officials waived the rule after it became apparent that it was more of a hindrance than a help. Second-guessing the timing and manner in which decisions were made in the heat of the moment is shameful and counterproductive; no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Incidentally, one of those lawmakers who criticized the state fire spotter rule was Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter.

"I'd give a very high grade to this operation," Hunter said. He said that while the rule about having trained "fire spotters" on military choppers should be changed, state firefighting officials waived it after he and others talked to them early in the week, and it might not have made much of a difference anyway.

Also, the revelation that the Marines and Navy had so many helicopters to offer California that it didn't know what to do with all of them reveals Nancy Pelosi as a liar. She claimed that that fire operations were hampered because too many resources were committed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Surprise, surprise: it turns out the opposite was true.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:26 PM

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