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24.1.04

PR Firefighting

Cedar Fire Water Drops Used Just To Calm Critics

Ineffective and cosmetic air drops of water were made over San Diego County during the biggest wildfire in state history in response to extreme pressure from critics, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said yesterday.

"Unfortunately, due to public pressure, some examples can be cited where cosmetic, expensive and ineffective flights were made," CDF director Andrea Tuttle told a blue ribbon panel dissecting the response to California's deadly fall wildfires. She did not provide specifics.

... During the fire, Republican politicians criticized state forestry officials for dragging their feet on seeking approval to use military planes to help fight the region's wildfires. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, who lost his home in the fire, had contacted Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to have military C-130s in other states flown to California to help fight the fires.


It's hard to judge Tuttle's assertion without more evidence, but I don't know of any good reason to say it's not true. The debate over the use of aircraft, which was quite heated while the fires were burning, illustrates something problematic about the public's view of fire. There's a reliance on technical fixes -- like heavy-duty firefighting airplanes -- that we hope can allow us to control nature. To not use the fanciest equipment looks like sitting on our hands.

The subtext of the article seems to be that it would be better if the public, and their elected representatives, would just butt out and let the firefighting experts do their jobs. There's something to be said for not micromanaging and second-guessing people who have been hired and trained to perform a certain function, especially during the height of crisis. But there's also something to be said for the democratic ideal of public oversight to keep the bureaucracy responsive to the needs and interests of those it's supposed to be serving. For the public to just butt out would be to hide the deeper issue. We need a cultural change of attitude to find a way to live with fire, rather than depending on an agency to implement a "fix" for the problem. This requires a broad consensus and a broad sharing of responsibility.

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