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Friday, June 27, 2008

700 California Wildfires: Why Don’t We Have Enough Firefighing Resources?

Almost three years ago, Americans watched in horror as this country failed to provide adequate disaster relief resources during Hurricane Katrina. Currently, the scenario is being repeated in California, where an estimated 600 to 900 lightning sparked wildfires are burning. Many of these fires began last Friday afternoon (6/20/08); many of these fires remain unmanned. As someone personally surrounded by over 80 fires in a 10 mile radius of my home, I am pissed, frightened, anxious, and depressed.

On Saturday, I called 911 twice to report seven fires, six of which only appeared on a map yesterday! I called CalFire, the United States Forest Service (two ranger districts), the Humboldt County Sheriff Department, the Trinity County Sheriff Department, and our local volunteer fire department. I wanted to know what road I could take out of our valley if I needed to escape the firestorm. The response, “Ma’am, there are fires everywhere. We don’t know where they are or what roads are open.” I felt trapped, and we began putting dozer lines around our meadow, hooking up more sprinklers, and connecting fire hoses to the pump in our pond.

Friends of ours in Mendocino were told by CDF, “We have so many fires, you are on your own.” YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN! Five days later, there has still not been any agency to help with their fire; however, the BLM showed up to tell them to stop using private bulldozers to put fire lines in around the blaze on public land. They didn’t listen and protected their homes on their own.

We’ve been through fire before, but never of this magnitude. There is no doubt that local agencies are doing the best they can with limited resources. The Firefighter Blog explains:

The State of California is in the midst of the worst wildfire crisis in modern state history. More than 900 wildland fires are burning, many unstaffed. Incident commanders are making do with skeleton crews in most cases.

Of course, the priority for resources has been homes and life, and I commend the job the firefighters are doing, but why did it take our governor three days to declare a state of emergency from the fires? Does he not work on the weekends during a natural disaster? Why do we have skeleton crews? The most apparent lack of support is air support. We are lucky if one plane or helicopter shows up for an hour to fight one fire out of 80 in our smoldering community.

The Bush administration has left this country’s infrastructure to deal with natural disasters in shambles. National Guard troops and resources are in Iraq, and local agencies are underfunded. Increased wildfires have been predicted as a result of global warming; this should not have hit us out of the blue. If we can’t handle natural disasters on our own, we need to ask other countries for help. We often send assistance to other countries during times of need. It’s time to swallow our patriotic pride and admit we can’t fight the magnitude of these fires on our own. We let immigrants earn citizenship by fighting in our wars; why not let them earn citizenship for fighting wildfires?

Locals are trying to make noise to get anyone’s attention: We are in DESPERATE need of help! We have been contacting our county board of supervisors, who have been trying their best to get us resources. We have called the governor, Boxer, Feinstein, Berg, etc. We receive compassionate responses to our pleas for help, but the answer is always the same: We don’t have any resources to send your way. Here is what one impassioned citizen wrote:

We appreciate your efforts in the past week to try and obtain the needed resources to fight the fires in Trinity County. However after five days, there are still few if any resources on any of the eighteen or so fires threatening our home and business, and the homes of our eight to ten other neighbors. All told there are about ten houses, one commercial building, our winery, numerous barns and outbuildings( probably about 25 ) and historic ranches that are being threatened. After we called 911 on Friday afternoon, a spotter plane flew over Friday night, but since then no planes or helicopters have worked on any of the eighteen fires near us…So far the weather has been ok so the fires have not spread too badly, but we need resources at some point to fight these fires, or they will eventually reach our homes and businesses, our lives that we have built over the past twenty years and longer. We are trying our best to be patient, but it is difficult. While we were watching the fires burn last night from our deck, we realized there is at least one that is not on the map and does not have a name…We are doing what we can to remain safe, keep our place green, build defensible barriers, and would like to remain here as long as we can to keep our place safe, especially since so far very little help appears to be on the way. Help is getting closer, which is a good start, but I wish it could get even closer. The fire camps are quite large, I hope they can spare some bodies out our way, and any air support would really help both the fires and our spirits. More resources are needed or the situation in Northern California could turn into another Hurricane Katrina type situation when the government took too long to take care of its citizens.

Local citizens have stepped up to the plate to keep each other informed and squelch wild rumors. What few firefighters have arrived have needed locals to help them find roads and locate fires on the map. Email has been utilized to keep the community informed; however, power was turned off to our town two days ago because of fire near the poles. Maps finally showed up yesterday at the store, and tomorrow there will be a community meeting. The information aspect of the fires is improving, as our local volunteer fire chief explained, “I don’t feel like a mushroom anymore, kept in the dark and fed s**t.” Despite local information efforts, websites reporting incident news are unreliable. This occurs every fire season, when the server for InciWeb can’t handle the demand. Firefighters and families rely on InciWeb for updated information, why can’t the government upgrade the server?

We are lucky the thunderstorms occurred early in fire season, when much of the foliage is still green. These fires are moving slowly, for the most part, which has been a blessing, as agencies scramble for very limited resources. The weather has mostly cooperated with cooler temperatures and light winds, but more thunderstorms are predicted for this weekend.

Original here

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