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San Diego

Deja Vu: Where Were The Tankers This Time?
by Larry Stirling 10/30/07

Once again citizens have been subjected to massive fire storms that have deprived too many of their homes.

This bane cannot be laid at the feet of the thousands of ground firefighters that put their lives on the line in often futile attempts to stem the fiery tides.

Effective fire fighting has always required that responders romp on the earliest flames with a massive response.

Failure to react early and overwhelmingly results in those sooty rivers and fingers of devastation that we will again permeate our communities.

Could much or any of this have been prevented? If so, why wasn't it?


Larry Stirling
Larry Stirling is a retired judge who authored the book "Leading at a Higher Level." He is a former Army officer, member of the San Diego City Council, the California State Assembly and the State Senate. [go to Stirling index]

Republished last week was a column I wrote during the devastating fires of 2003 entitled "Where were the tankers this time?"

In that column, I lamented the delayed availability of the massive California Air National Guard (CANG) C-130s that were loaded with MAFF firefighting units that can deliver knock-out punches to forest fires.

I also pointed out that we knew the C-130s were sitting on the runway at the Channel Island CANG air base ready to go.

I referred to the exact same failure when San Diego suffered from an arsonist that started a fire along Interstate 8 in full view of thousands of Charger fans attending a game that day.

That fire ultimately burned through much of the venerable community of Normal Heights.

When it became clear that the freeway brush fire could not be contained by ground units, SDFD urgently requested the state to send in air tankers.

The California Division of Forestry (renamed CALFIRE) declined to send help citing the full employment of "their" tankers. However, CALFIRE failed to mention that sitting on the runway at the Van Nuys Airport was an entire "stick" of C-130s gassed up, filled with MAFF's and retardant, and ready to go.

CALFIRE never did send the CANG tankers to Normal Heights.

In fact, CALFIRE did not send CANG tankers to any California fires in 2003 until it was too late and even then not until the president signed "Disaster Area" proclamations effectively shifting the cost of the tankers to the federal tax payer.

Now it is 2007, and on the third or fourth day of a series of devastating fires. The C-130s are just now being ordered into the air to fight fires on Camp Pendleton with no present orders to stamp out the still fulminating fires around San Diego County.

What impedes the availability of these tankers we so desperately need? Greed, pure and simple, stands in the way of protecting Californians.

Whose greed? The greed of the private air tanker operators.

Here is the back ground. There is a bevy of contractual providers who make their living off of the annual crop of forest fires.

In an article entitled "The Torching of America" one magazine made the case that these groups are so dependant on forest fires for a living that they sometimes start them themselves. And various news stories over the years about fires being set by people associated with such business have not been uncommon.

But whether set by lightening, hungry contractors, or crazy arsonists, forest fires that threaten lives or private property are best dealt with by a massive response. Once an embryonic inferno escapes its heavily fueled crib, it spreads like ... it spreads like wildfire.

Private contractors who offer aerial tankers to the federal and state forestry agencies admittedly do a dangerous job. But they are handsomely paid for that work by receiving a base allowance for availability in addition to a fee for each drop.

This payment mechanism is a perverse incentive, so perverse that it costs lives and millions in private property damage and collateral public costs.

In order to maximize their income, the private pilots insist on the full enforcement of a Federal law entitled the "posse comitatus" an arcane provision (18 USC 1385).

This law enacted for good and sufficient reason, among other things, requires that the U.S. military not supplant state or private efforts in a number of fields. This law was designed to protect the states and private businesses from unfair competition by misuse of the military personnel.

The private contractors hide behind that law in Washington demanding that neither USAF or CANG C-130s be allowed to fight fires unless or until it is clear that the private contractors cannot gorge themselves any further.

They also make sure that there is a shortage of C-130s ready to fight fires.

I don't want the private contractors to be put out of work. At the same time, their livelihood should not come at the expense of all the rest of us.

Demand your federal legislator amend posse comitatus to eliminate fire fighting from its scope.

No one else should die because of this awful law. CRO



copyright 2007 Larry Stirling


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