Commentary

After the fires

When the fires finally subside, how will politicians react? Was San Diego ill prepared? Perhaps the city will hire more firefighters. Were rescue efforts hampered by regulations and a by-the-book mentality? Pilot Dave Weldon told The Associated Press on Thursday that he saw state firefighting planes on a nearby airstrip as he approached the mountains at 110 mph. He called down for help because his dispatcher had relayed reports of smoke in the area, but he got no response. That was around 5:45 p.m. A few minutes later, he spotted smoke from the fire, then only about 50 yards on each side and not spreading. As he steadied his helicopter against wind gusts, Weldon’s concern mounted. Just before landing, he called for backup, asking another county helicopter to speed to the scene with its 120-gallon water dump bucket. And he urged the dispatcher to contact state firefighters and renew his request for air tankers. The problem was that under state safety guidelines, no flights can go up into waning daylight. On Saturday, the cutoff was 5:36 p.m., said California Department of Forestry Capt. Ron Serabia, who coordinates the 12 tankers and 10 helicopters now battling the 272,000-acre blaze. The sun set that day at 6:05 p.m. What about fire fighters’ overlapping jurisdictions or private contractors? [San Diego Congressman Duncan] Hunter said the “firefighting bureaucracy” tends to be slow to act and that officials are reluctant to criticize other fire officials. Hunter said other members of Congress from Western states have been frustrated when asking state officials to request aerial tankers and helicopters from the U.S. military. “There’s a reluctance among the firefighting bureaucracy at the state and federal levels to use military assets until they exhaust the last of private companies,” Hunter said. He said he has teamed with a congressman from Colorado to seek a change in federal law that would speed the process of getting military craft to fight fires. The private companies that lease and operate aerial tankers are opposed to such a move, Hunter said. Some see this an opportunity for Arnold to (gulp) embrace new taxes: Various state and local officials want Schwarzenegger to preserve the car tax rate that tripled under Gov. Gray Davis, contending that the money pays for lifesaving fire and emergency services now being marshaled against the wildfires. They are also hoping Schwarzenegger will raise taxes under a caveat that he carved for himself: Such a move would be considered in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. “I don’t believe that it’s in the moral fiber of the Legislature or the governor-elect to compound the tragedy experienced by thousands of Californians by reducing the level of public safety on which we rely,” said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles Democrat. Still others see some (double gulp) economic benefits to the fires: So if the economic impact of the fires is “mixed,” should that affect how we regard the suspected arsonist?

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.