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.