Santa Barbara County observed the official beginning of high fire season this week with a freak rain—making last weekend the wettest ever recorded for the month of June—and a downtown fire that destroyed a plaster company’s warehouse and sent one person to the hospital. Also, political turmoil is growing over plans to ground the County Fire Department’s two fire-fighting helicopters in response to the county government’s $72 million budget deficit. This proposal, which goes to the supervisors next week, would save $1.2 million by eliminating funding for the two pilots and their ground crews. Whether this proposal qualifies as political brinksmanship, as many suspect, or is a sincere if desperate effort to cut costs, it would effectively gut the county’s first and fastest line of aerial defense in case a back-country blaze breaks out in Santa Barbara’s notoriously steep canyons and inaccessible terrain.
The county’s need for this protection has grown more urgent since the U.S. Forest Service shut down its air base in Santa Maria and opted to serve the Los Padres Forest with air tankers flown in from Porterville or Lancaster. Despite the Forest Service’s insistence it can get air fighters fueled, loaded with retardant, and in the air no less than four hours after an incident starts, South Coast fire chiefs are quick to point out the Forest Service has yet to meet that target. The County Sheriff’s Department has helicopters of its own and has volunteered to fill the breech. This has touched off such a nasty family feud among the public safety community that an innocuous sounding item on this week’s supervisor’s agenda—during which the Sheriff’s Department would officially accept a donation of a helicopter—was tabled and a new ad hoc helicopter subcommittee was formed. Those in the firefighting community insist neither the Sheriff’s helicopters nor their pilots are trained or equipped to handle the arduous challenges posed by back-country fire fighting.
Adding to this brew are new proposed restrictions on how the Forest Service will fight wildfires throughout its 193-million-acre countrywide domain, hatched in response to successful litigation filed by an environmental organization contending that the 24 million gallons of fire retardant dropped every year posed an immediate threat to no less than 65 threatened or endangered species. If the new restrictions are approved—as they almost certainly will be by December 31—the pilots hired to fight fires will now soon be precluded from dropping retardant on critical habitat for these species, zones referred to as “Retardant Avoidance Areas.” Pilots are already precluded from dropping within 300 feet of any stream, river, or creek bed. In addition, the number of exceptions to these prohibitions will be reduced. Currently, pilots are allowed to drop retardant on such protected areas to protect either life or property. Under the new guidelines, they will be allowed to do so only to save life, but not property.
Tuesday night the state agency dispatched a team to the Cabrillo Arts Pavilion to conduct one of only four “listening sessions” throughout the United States to hear public reaction to these changes, brought forth as part of the “environmentally preferred alternative” in a new Environmental Impact Statement. Santa Barbara was selected for obvious reasons: five of the state’s biggest wildfires ever took place in the Los Padres National Forest. In just two years, Santa Barbara played unwilling host to the Zaca Fire, the Gap Fire, the Jesusita Fire, and the Tea Fire. Combined they torched nearly 300,000 acres and destroyed almost 300 homes. In the past 10 years, Los Padres was the site of more fire retardant drops than any forest in the country. In California, it has had more than twice as many drops—with more than twice as many gallons of retardant—than its next closest rival. Not all were delivered with pinpoint precision. During the Jesuita Fire, for example, an errant load of retardant was dumped directly on a tributary of the Maria Ygnacio Creek. Anywhere from 50-100 steelhead trout—a federally endangered species—were killed along a one-mile stretch of creek. The Forest Service describes such incidents as “misapplications,” of which they say 14 occur a year on average. Some “misapplications” can have devastating effects, like the one outside of Bend, Oregon, more than 10 years ago that killed 20,000 fish.
This incident prompted Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FREEE) to sue in federal court, demand that the Forest Service conduct a full-scale review of the impacts of retardant—a combination of water, emulsifiers, dye, and fertilizers—on the environment where it lands. The group contended that retardant was especially hard on aquatic life. But they also claimed that the retardant fertilizer changed the soil, making it much more inviting to a host of invasive nonnative species. As a result, they argued, many environmentally challenged plants found themselves further squeezed out. FREEE demanded an environmental impact report and won the first round in 2005. But the Forest Service’s response was sufficiently lackluster that FREEE sued again. A judge found the federal agency’s efforts were “incomplete, insincere, and untimely,” and ordered them back to the drawing board. It was the result of those efforts that was on display at the Arts Pavilion Tuesday night.
Despite the high stakes involved, the crowd was small—34 to 40 people—and mostly low key. Many were fire-fighting brass, retired incident commanders, or government employees. One representative from the Environmental Defense Center was on hand. An agent for the company that enjoys a monopoly on all fire retardant sales in the United States was there, too. There were only three alternatives on the table; stop dropping retardant altogether, keep with the existing program, or adopt the new restrictions. With one exception, all speakers expressed varying degrees of skepticism about placing any new environmental restrictions on pilots attempting to fight fires in the most treacherous of conditions. But as Forest Service officials repeatedly said, they were under a judge’s order to get something approved by December 31. And of the three alternatives, only one would satisfy the judge.