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Public Safety and the $$ Crunch

Seeking SD County Wildfire Fighting Autonomy

Among the more important government responsibilities is protection of the public at large; with national defense, crime prevention, fire fighting and emergency response and management services having the most vital functions -- along with the highest degree of visibility as well.

In California, fighting wildfires is a critical public service. In that the undeveloped lands of California are owned by both the state and the federal government, calculating costs become problematic. The respective budgets of the U. S. Forest Service and CAL-FIRE are separate; but the function of fire fighting is often interwoven between agencies; making the actual cost to communities somewhat ambiguous.

In retrospect, chances are there would have been nary a complaint about monies expended had there neither been loss of life nor property in the ’03 and ’07 San Diego wildfires. Any expense would have been tolerated and the agencies involved applauded. Sadly, as every San Diegan knows all too well, that was not the case.

The good news is that the San Diego County Board of Supervisors—with Ron Roberts and his policy advisor Gabriel Gutierrez playing a lead role—were instrumental in funding a grant of $36,000 to CAL FIRE for the installation of a remote fire detection system using UCSD’s HPWREN (High Performance Wireless Research & Education Network) as a collection and distribution interface.

Roberts and Gutierrez are to be congratulated for both their foresight and bargain hunting prowess; as the HPWREN system is a tremendous improvement in “first responder” capability -- easily the most vital stage in fighting destructive, wind-driven wildfires.

The not-so-good news: According to Janet Upton (CAL FIRE’s Director for Communications), when the 2009-10 California budget was signed into law, there were cuts of $27 Million to CAL FIRE’s overall budget.

One result of those cuts is the cancellation of a contract that provided the state with dedicated DC-10 super tanker service -- a most ominous red flag constituting a significant reduction to CAL FIRE’s wildfire fighting capabilities.

Currently, CAL FIRE’s Air Program features 23 Grumman S-2T (turbine engine) 1,200 gallon air tankers—for statewide coverage—as it’s main airborne fire fighting platform.

Virtually all Grumman S-2 (series) airframes were manufactured in the early 1960s; which translates to: longer lead-times in finding and stocking spare parts; likely making the program ever more costly; with a continually worsening degree of air tanker operational readiness being the unacceptable but certain outcome.

During CY 2012, the US Forest Service contracted for the availability of three BAe-146 large air tankers to be stationed in Montana and Nevada. These will be dispatched on a prioritized, on-call basis; with their coverage being federally owned forest lands over the entire western United States.

If the ’03 and ’07 wildfires taught us anything, it is this: unless a wildfire is attacked and fought from the earliest possible moment, the prospect of preventing a repeat of the destructive Cedar and Witch Creek wildfires ... is slim to none. The loss of 24 lives and approximately $2.3 Billion in insured real estate assets -- should be all the incentive needed to want to assure the effectiveness of the system that is ultimately deployed.

From a first responder perspective, the immediate actions of a well planned and executed airborne response is the most crucial element. It therefore stands to reason that a FAA validated aircraft; that has been specifically designed as a initial attack airborne firefighter; and which has a proven record of success -- would be a bargain at almost any price.

But the Olney, Texas manufactured Air Tractor AT-802F “Fire Boss” sell new for a fraction of the cost of the City of San Diego’s Bell 412 helicopters. At approximately $2 Million per (new), they come fully equipped with all the bells and whistles. It has floats for landing on lakes and reservoirs to replenish it’s 800 gallon water tank, and then, in 30 seconds (or so), take off on a return flight to the fire scene. The aircraft also features a proprietary computer controlled fire gate for assuring pinpoint, quantified drops of retardant and/or water.

While the Cedar Fire was sweeping through Wildcat Canyon, all of San Diego County’s CAL FIRE allocated air tanker assets were grounded in San Bernardino County. The point: In the event of the reoccurrence of another large back country wildfire, and having to depend upon a state agency (albeit, a very good one) for timely, necessary, first responder air tanker support—especially when considering CAL FIRE’s funding deficiencies—is risky at best.

In every fire district in San Diego County there is a certain autonomy of action for every type of fire ... except wildfires. To have been dependent upon outside sources for the critically important “first responder” function led to two horrific disasters. The Board of Supervisors would do well to bring every mayor and fire district manager in the County together to formulate a plan that would allow for establishing an autonomous, locally controlled and performance proven airborne first responder capability to the people of San Diego County.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Craig Maxwell December 11, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Interesting piece, Vince. Thank you. Question: Though the Fire Boss sounds like a good deal, I wonder if it isn't limited by its inability (compared with helicopters) to refill in ponds and very small reservoirs? Water's scarce in the county, and the time lost in having to land in a lake big enough for the plane might make all the difference.
Vincent Wallgren, Jr. December 11, 2012 at 03:49 AM
Thanks, Craig. Lakes like Cuyamaca, Dixon, Jennings, Hodges, Miramar, Murray, etc. -- all have sufficient size to allow the AT-802F to land and take off safely. Keeping in mind that the ferry speed of this aircraft is almost double that of helos, and it's water tank capacity double that of the largest Huey, it is a far more effective "first responder" airframe than anything currently deployed in California. More info here: http://airtractor.com/sites/default/files/brochures/Air-Tractor-AT-802F-Brochure.pdf
Batman December 11, 2012 at 04:51 PM
The most effective method of wildland fire control is ELIMINATION OF FUEL. In other words, brush clearance and fire breaks and such. And this is where our state and federal forestry agencies have fallen severely short. They are pushing for the most expensive rather than the most effective methods. Granted, one firefighting aircraft can do the work of dozens of fire engines, but one strategically located and well maintained fire break can do the work of dozens of aircraft and hundreds of fire engines. The forestry agencies are not solely to blame for the dilemma. The many environmentalist organizations have made it almost impossible to practice common sense forest management these days. The next major fire must be fought in the courtroom.
Komfort December 11, 2012 at 06:13 PM
If the Feds had a bonus program for putting out fires, things may change. As it stands they appear to have a bonus plan for prolonging a burn. www.fs.fed.us/fire/ibp/personnel/2009_5_29_HP_clarification.doc How many of these raging blazes started on Federal land?
Vincent Wallgren, Jr. December 11, 2012 at 09:36 PM
C'mon, Batman, logic and cost saving measures are prohibited by government fiat. The powers that be cannot allow controlled burns; for that would allude to there being no harm to the air we breathe; thereby inferring it's OK for everyone to burn their yard waste. CARB would have a hissy fit and tie that up in court for years. Then the ecology folks would block the mechanical removal of brush because of it being the natural habitat of a gnat catcher ... or whatever. Great idea Batman; that will, sadly, never happen.
Batman December 11, 2012 at 10:17 PM
Then this new fire tax is a complete waste. It won't make anyone even a tiny bit safer.
Vincent Wallgren, Jr. December 12, 2012 at 06:18 PM
For those who may be interested, here's a couple videos of the Air Boss landing on a lake, scooping water to refill it's tank, and then taking off again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEKs784_Riw http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkpY82GtgbI

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