Panel Examines Calif. Wildfire Future

Panel Examines Calif. Wildfire Future

7 November 2007

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Irvine, California, USA — Rapidhousing development in wildfire-prone areas and continued bone-dry weather havealarmed California firefighters, who on Tuesday began a sweeping assessment offire risk and what’s needed to meet it.

Catastrophic wildfires that burned across the state last month and in 2003were of an intensity that should happen rarely — perhaps once a century, theysay. The proximity of those fires has raised fears that furious blazes couldbecome more frequent.

“We’ve had our second 100-year fire in four years. So, if you are goingto have a 100-year fire every four years, it seems that you need to dramaticallychange your definition of what the fire danger is in California,” saidCarroll Wills, a spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters.

“Where they build the homes has a lot to do with whether or not theywill be lost,” added Wills, a member of the state task force that began abroad review of firefighting during last month’s blazes, which left seven peopledead and destroyed more than 2,000 homes from Los Angeles County to the Mexicanborder.

In a statement after its first meeting, the group said the October and 2003fires show California “is faced with a new kind of fire threat” andurged the state to immediately find funding for 150 new fire engines and morefirefighters.

“We’re going to tell it like it is, and like it should be,” thestatement said. “We’re not going to hold any sacred cows.”

The group also said the state and Congress need to determine whether thereare enough air tankers — large aircraft that can dump thousands of gallons offire retardant — to deal with growing fire risks. Other proposals urge thestate to push more rigorous zoning and construction rules that recognize firethreats.

Corona Fire Department Chief Mike Warren, chairman of the Blue Ribbon TaskForce, appointed state and federal officials to examine the use of militaryplanes and helicopters, and well as state and federal aircraft, in the recentfires after criticism that some were left grounded because of bureaucratic rulesand inadequate planning.

The Associated Press reported Oct. 25 that Marine, Navy and National Guardhelicopters were grounded for up to a day, possibly longer, because statepersonnel required to be on board were not immediately available. The NationalGuard’s two newest C-130 cargo planes also could not help because they had yetto be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fireretardant.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has directed the task force to determine ifCalifornia has enough fire engines and personnel, as well as to look at whetherthe state should allow homes and businesses to be built in areas with highwildfire risk.

“The governor believes the state did a great job in its response to thefires, but we should always be asking ourselves what additional steps we need totake to do even better,” Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said.

Warren said Monday he expected to complete a report in early 2008, butindicated Tuesday it could take longer.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force was set up after the 2003 fires that destroyedmore than 3,600 homes, many in the same areas. The task force, made up of firechiefs and state appointees, issued dozens of recommendations to improvefirefighting. Part of its work will be to see if those recommendations werefollowed and, if so, what worked.

For days after the fires grew out of control on Oct. 21, Schwarzenegger saidthe state’s disaster response was textbook. Only after Southern California fireofficials clamored for additional support and the AP revealed government rulesdelayed dozens of water-dumping aircraft from reaching the blazes did heacknowledge the state may have been able to do better.

Among the recommendations the task force may have to revisit is bettercoordination to quickly begin aerial attacks on wildfires.

Three years ago, panel members said finding ways to quickly get militaryhelicopters and planes airborne to battle raging wildfires should be a”high priority.” Yet, delays launching aircraft revealed a systemstill suffering from communication and planning shortfalls.

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