Special to The BRAD BLOG by Miriam Raftery from San Diego, CA
“It’s like Armageddon,” Jill Michaels said, after watching her home burn to the ground in the Harris fire. In the early hours of the worst fire in California history, the Michaels family received no evacuation warning and found exit routes blocked, forcing them to turn back to their home in Potrero. Now, the Michaels are among half a million evacuees who have fled four raging wildfires, the worst fire disaster in California history. Worse even than the 2003 Cedar fire, which until now held that shameful record.
San Diego County now has more refugees than New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. While reported loss of life thus far remains low, hundreds of thousands of acres have been scorched and countless people will soon return home--only to find themselves homeless.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and local officials have made media appearances claiming credit for swiftly responding to the disaster. “There is much more equipment available, more manpower is available, quicker action,” Schwarzenegger said, according to the Associated Press.
What the Governor failed to mention is that he vetoed four bills that would have increased staffing and fire resources after the Cedar Fire, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. A fifth bill, signed by Schwarzenegger, requires local governments to first submit safety plans to the California Department of Forestry and will not take effect until 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported in a May 20, 2007 article titled “Fire danger acute as 2003 lessons fade.” That article has since disappeared off the newspaper’s website, but a copy is here.
The same story cited Dallas Jones, former director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and current official with California Professional Firefighters union. Jones damned Schwarzenegger for failing to provide additional firetrucks. “How many years are we since the ’03 fire siege?” he asked, “and so far, nothing.”
Other unfulfilled recommendations made to Schwarzenegger by his Blue Ribbon Fire Commission include replacement of aging fire helicopters, increasing staffing to assure four person crews on each state fire engine sent to major wildfires, and nighttime air drops.
A national contract fleet of heavy air tankers has fallen from 41 to 16 in the last five years, with aging aircraft deemed unsafe and grounded. The state firefighting fleet has not replaced two air tankers that crashed, the L.A. Times reported.
CNN reports that only 1,500 National Guard have been sent to assist Californians during the current wildfire crisis—less than 1/10 of the state’s 20,000 National Guard members. Clearly having the bulk of our National Guards forces deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan have hindered emergency response here at home.