Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Unwillingess to Make Exceptions Results in Further Fire Damage

When the latest California wildfire was raging through Santa Barbara, tanker planes –– the ones that drop water and fire retardant onto the fire –– were forced to fly 120 miles out of the way to Porterville to reload, because the US Forest Service didn't have a contract to use the Santa Maria airport that was only 60 miles away.

According to a story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, 10 planes were forced to make the hour-long trip over two days while the contracts were worked out, adding an unnecessary five hours to the trip, putting more lives and property at danger.

It seems to me you can come up with a short-term interim contract or even a memo of understanding to fill in the gap while waiting for the regular contract to be filed. But then again, I still use common sense to make decisions, so what do I know?

No one is sure what those wasted five hours would have meant in terms of containing the fire, but some residents who were driven from the area are upset with the air response. The fire turned from a moderate brush fire on Wednesday afternoon to a "wind-driven inferno that burned dozens of homes to the ground."

However, fire service officials are adamant that it was the wind, and not the problematic air response, that led to the fire's growth.

It's always the weather with you people, isn't it.

But this isn't the only time the air response has had problems. In the fall 2007, fire fighting helicopters were grounded for more than a day because of bureaucratic screwups. At the same time, California Air National Guard cargo planes were never equipped with retardant and water tanks.

Ironically, the contract with the Santa Maria airport was cut from year-round to the regular wildfire season in order to save money. Money that, now saved, can be used to help pay for fire damage that might have been prevented with those missing five hours.

If only we could harness the power of bureaucracy to fight fires. Unfortunately it would be glacially slow, require consensus from the entire group, and spend three weeks crafting a mission statement before getting down to the business of putting out fires.

Drew Curtis at Fark.com had the best quote over the entire incident: Heckuva job there, Smokey!

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