Firefighters Warn of Continued Wildfire Threat in California

November 8, 2007

Rapid development in wildfire-prone areas and continued bone-dry weather have alarmed California firefighters, who began a sweeping assessment of fire danger this week and what’s needed to meet it.

Catastrophic wildfires that burned across the state last month and in 2003 were of an intensity that should be witnessed rarely — perhaps once a century, they say. The proximity of those fires has raised fears that furious blazes could become more frequent, threatening lives and property.

“We’ve had our second 100-year fire in four years. So, if you are going to have a 100-year fire every four years, it seems that you need to dramatically change your definition of what the fire danger is in California,” said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters.

“Where they build the homes has a lot to do with whether or not they will be lost,” Carroll said.

His remarks came as a state task force began a broad review of firefighting during last month’s blazes, which left seven dead and destroyed more than 2,000 homes from Los Angeles County to the Mexican border.

In a statement after its first meeting, the group said the October and 2003 fires show California “is faced with a new kind of fire threat” and urged the state to immediately find funding for 150 new fire engines and more firefighters.

“We’re going to tell it like it is, and like it should be,” the task force statement said. “We’re not going to hold any sacred cows.”

It also said the state and Congress need to determine whether there are enough air tankers — large aircraft that can dump thousands of gallons of fire retardant — to deal with growing fire risks. Other proposals urge the state to push more rigorous zoning and construction rules that recognize fire threats.

The head of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, Corona Fire Chief Mike Warren, appointed state and federal officials to examine the use of military planes and helicopters, and well as state and federal aircraft, in the recent fires after criticism that some were left grounded because of bureaucratic rules and inadequate planning.

The Associated Press reported on Oct. 25 that Marine, Navy and National Guard helicopters were grounded for up to a day, and possibly longer, because state personnel required to be on board were not immediately available. The National Guard’s two newest C-130 cargo planes also could not help because they had yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has directed the group to determine if California has enough fire engines and personnel, as well as look at whether the state should allow homes and businesses to be built in areas with high wildfire risk.

“The governor believes the state did a great job in its response to the fires, but we should always be asking ourselves what additional steps we need to take to do even better,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “He is calling on the experts to examine the most recent fires and to make additional recommendations to ensure we are always improving our fire response.”

The panel began its work on a day when the administration confirmed that state agencies have been directed to draft plans for a 10 percent, across-the-board spending cut. If enacted, it would be the biggest round of budget cuts since Schwarzenegger took office in 2003.

“Any time they start talking about cutting budgets and reducing revenues … that’s a concern,” Warren said.

Warren said he expected to complete a report in early 2008, but indicated it could take longer. Among the issues: working with communities to update fire codes and building standards in light of wildfire risks.

Wills, who was one of about 30 people who attended the meeting, said issues from radio communications to building codes to aircraft used in firefighting will be discussed.

A similar group convened after the 2003 fires and issued dozens of recommendations to improve firefighting. Part of the task force’s work will be to see if those recommendations were followed and, if so, what worked.

Schwarzenegger wasn’t always focused on improvements, however.

For days after the fires grew out of control on Oct. 21, he said the state’s disaster response was textbook. Only after Southern California fire officials clamored for additional support and The Associated Press revealed government rules delayed dozens of water-dumping aircraft from reaching the blazes did Schwarzenegger acknowledge the state may have been able to do better.

The task force is meeting behind closed doors, which raised questions about accountability.

“The Legislature will be holding public hearings (on the wildfires), and we are hoping the administration does the same,” said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democrat who heads the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security, said his committee will hold the hearings.

Among the recommendations the task force may have to revisit is better coordination to quickly begin aerial attacks on wildfires.

Three years ago, panel members said finding ways to quickly get military helicopters and planes airborne to battle raging wildfires should be a “high priority.” Yet, delays launching aircraft revealed a system still suffering from communication and planning shortfalls.

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