Wildfires Continue in Oklahoma; Californians Battle Each Other for Fire Protection, Amid Washington Inaction
August 6, 2012 • 11:59PM

The recent history of $80 million in cuts to Cal Fire, California's statewide firefighting agency, is another graphic demonstration of why Congress must return to Washington and address the drought/wildfire disaster devastating the Western states. According to the latest update from the National Incident Coordination Center, as of this morning, there were 48 uncontained "large fires" burning across the country, including four in California. Nevada alone has 11 large wildland fire incidents. ("Large" is defined as 100 acres or more in timber; or 300 acres in grassland.)

The update on Oklahoma, is that seven large fires continue, amidst other smaller blazes. A fortunate light rain over the weekend, and heroic firefighting have allowed some evacuees to return to their neighborhoods, but the flames continue, having already burned approximately 500,000 acres. The hot, dry conditions persist, with no relief in sight. Gov. Mary Fallin repeated yesterday, "This has really stretched the resources of the state of Oklahoma."

Throughout the West, four Air National Guard firefighting-equipped C-130s are deployed to fight fires, but according to news reports, all four of them are hitting the Trinity Ridge fire, 50 miles east of Boise, Idaho—a particularly aggressive fire—which has grown from 200 acres on Aug. 34, to 1,800 acres on Aug. 6.

To date, Washington lawmakers have confined themselves to denouncing the U.S. Forestry Service (USFS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for national firefighting aid, instead of taking up the emergency from the top, and deploying resources. Look at the current funding fracas in California in that context.

In California, its state fire-fighting agency Cal Fire, which is deployed over and beyond local incorporated fire companies, has had its funding cut over the past 18 months by $80 million. Cal Fire spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson tries, unsuccessfully, to play down the dangerous effect this has had. She told KNX radio, on July 10, that the cuts haven't yet compromised Cal Fire's "attack capability," but "we are having to give up some equipment and some personnel that could really impact us." So far, that's meant reducing truck crews from 4 firefighters to 3, and closing one of Cal Fire's air tanker bases. Hutchinson indicated that the fire season hasn't been so bad in California yet, but fire officials fear what might happen if the reduced system is tested later this year by fires comparable to those seen in Colorado earlier this year.

In an attempt to offset Cal Fire's cuts, Gov. Gerry Brown had a measure go through the legislature called a firefighting "fee" not a "tax." The state is now about to bill 825,000 residents, a new $150-a-year fee for Cal Fire services. These people live in unincorporated areas of counties, and therefore don't pay their local towns or fire departments a fee/tax, though a certain percentage of these residents may already pay a voluntary fee into their rural fire protection district, if there is one.

A hue and cry has gone up, not only from the residents over the tax, but from fire chiefs of sub-county districts who already collect and need a fee from the same people, for example, in Marin and Sonoma Counties. "This state tax taps taxpayers at the same time the county needs" money itself, Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber told the Marin Independent Journal. "We want to make sure our communities are protected here in Marin, and $1.75 million [from Gerry Brown's new Cal Fire fee/tax in Marin County] is a lot of money we could use locally for wildland fire prevention."

Meanwhile, state officials and members of Congress are accusing the U.S. Forest Service of dragging its feet on a report on using its own aircraft to drop retardant on fires at night, that it promised after the Station Fire that burned more than 250 square miles north of Los Angeles in 2009. Rep. Adam Schiff (D), who is from Burbank, told KNX that "It's appalling to me, almost on the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of that fire, and we still not only don't have an answer from the Forest Service."

The USFS has allowed the available fleet of large tanker aircraft (mostly operated by contractors) to fall from 44 aircraft, ten years ago, to 11 today. It has also been reluctant to use very large tanker aircraft, which can drop up to 20,000 gallons of retardant in a single pass, to the point of risking the existence of that capability.