Burn Baby Burn. As California Burns – More Money Needed Along With New Fire Fighting Strategies

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A resident of the Overlook Apartments is evacuated from her home in Santa Rosa, California, Monday morning Oct. 9, 2017.(Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“I wish I could say the cavalry is coming — it’s not,” Battalion Chief Kirk Van Wormer of Cal Fire, said as flecks of ash rained down on the Chief and his firefighters. “Look to your left and look to your right. Those are the people you are responsible for right now.” That sums up the problem with fighting multiple fires all at once in California. Cal Fire is the state firefighting agency which is facing 22 major fires  which have consumed 170,000 acres since the outbreak began on Sunday night. The confirmed death toll rose to 23 on Wednesday, from 17 a day earlier, with hundreds of other people reported missing. And the fire is moving at the rate of one football field every 3 seconds. No doubt Cal Fire has the will to fight, but without more money they have limited resources, and so tough decisions are made. And right now the fires are burning out of control and property is not being protected to the satisfaction of home and business owners.

Napa and Sonoma Counties are the hardest hit as they have nine major blazes as of Thursday morning and the area burned grew to 119,000 acres, up from 91,000 the day before. And the worst part is that they are only 3 percent contained or less.  “These fires are literally just burning faster than firefighters can run,  and we are attacking many, many new fires that we put out while they are still small,” said Cal Fire spokesperson.

So far there are 8,000 state and local firefighters. 550 fire engines, 73 helicopters and more than 30 airplanes, state officials said, with additional crews and 320 more fire engines en route from neighboring states and from federal agencies – but it is not enough.

So the big question is why? And there in lies the problem. The fire fighting strategy has changed and driving that change is money. Lack of resources and an increase in the number of  the fires coupled with budget cuts – despite the growing problem – have resulted in a situation that is simply impossible. According to the San Jose Mercury News. “Before Napa and Sonoma, California already had 1,000 more wildfires this year than in 2016, burning more than 225,000 acres. The National Interagency Fire Center reports more than 50,000 fires in Western states have burned 8.5 million acres in 2017, nearly double the acreage burned over the first nine months of 2016. 

Yet the Trump administration has called for a $300 million cut from the Forest Service’s firefighting budget and a $50 million cut to its wildfire prevention budget for 2018. Amazingly,  the federal budget for volunteer fire departments also faces a 23 percent cut. Sen. Mary Cantwell, D-Wash., is appalled. Volunteer departments “are the first responders to wildfires and help us do whatever they can to help contain them as other people come on board,” she said.

The Trump administration did approve Western lawmakers’ recent request for another $576 million this year to fight the wildfires still burning, but the 2018 budget that passed the House remains a problem. The Forest Service says it has spent a record $2 billion this year battling forest fires. The previous record in 2015 was $1.7 billion. The congressional fight over fire prevention is complicated by the debate over how to manage forests. Some conservatives, including Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, think more logging would reduce the severity of fires. But studies show you can’t log your way out of fire danger. Each forest is different. And it’s not just forests that burn, it’s all kinds of vegetation. And buildings. Napa Valley is not Yosemite.

Climate change is lengthening the fire season in the West. Congress and Western state legislatures should be amping up prevention — just as we strengthen dams to help prevent flooding. When wildfires do break out, fighting them should be funded the same way as other natural disasters. Fires destroy natural resources, but they also take lives. The photos of patients being wheeled out of Santa Rosa hospitals while flames raged in the background were stunning. We hope for as few casualties as possible as the result of this latest calamity — and for more common sense in planning for the inevitable next wave of conflagrations.”

With a major wildfire fanned by high winds, firefighters can often do little more than focus on saving lives, experts said. That can include performing a kind of triage, deciding which structures to save and which to let burn. And so far they are largely letting it burn…it’s time for reevaluating the fire fighting strategy and renewing a commitment to better – and bigger – budgets…

Via: The Mercury News, NY Times

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