Just two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the fire chiefs of Santa Barbara County let loose the opening shot of what’s been a long-simmering campaign to pressure the U.S. Forest Service to restore “full-service” status to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, as opposed to the “call when needed” designation the base has had for the past two years. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio — accompanied by Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace and Operations Chief Terry McElwee — showed up at Santa Barbara City Hall to ask the council to sign a ceremonial letter expressing their support for the fire chiefs in a battle of political will with the Forest Service. While the chiefs wore the brass, it was former county supervisor — and longtime rancher — Willy Chamberlin who held the floor, urging the councilmembers to hang tough and “not weaken.” Chamberlin introduced himself as a “self-appointed bird dog” when it came to air-tanker readiness, but his remarks to the council were relatively tame compared to comments he made in the hallways outside the council chambers. There, Chamberlin blistered the Forest Service for downgrading the status of the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base in 2009. Not only has the loss of a full-service base cost the federal government money, he said, it put county residents at greater peril in the face of wildland fires. Had the tanker base remained at full service, Chamberlin insisted that the Jesusita Fire of 2009 — which destroyed 80 homes — might well have been contained early on. “I’m not saying it would have stopped that fire,” Chamberlin said, “but it would most definitely have been a very different fire.” The chiefs, standing next to him, nodded in assent.
The council performance was the sound of one hand clapping. No councilmembers asked questions or expressed any sentiment. No one from the Forest Service was in the room to express a contrary word. The vote was unanimous in favor of the letter. Next week, the same show will descend upon the County Board of Supervisors. Likewise, the Santa Maria City Council will sign on. This marks the second time in the last two years the chiefs have risen up to lobby the Forest Service to upgrade the Santa Maria tanker base. Last time, they failed after Tom Franklin, county fire chief at the time, broke ranks and expressed support, however squishy and conditional, for the call-when-needed status. But this time, the chiefs are unanimous. The county’s new fire chief, Mike Dyer, is emphatically on board. Backing the chiefs last time was Congressmember Lois Capps. This time around, Capps is still involved. But so is Chamberlin, a darling of the conservative agrarian community. In this campaign, Chamberlin has been the proverbial man on fire, going mano-a-mano — verbally — with Los Padres Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez. Helping him out is Brad Joos, who until his recent retirement was the second-highest ranking USFS firefighter working Los Padres National Forest. Chamberlin worked his contacts and connections to draw Congressmember Elton Gallegly — who until the advent of Tea Party politics would have been considered an arch-conservative Republican — into the fray, even though the air base is outside Gallegly’s district. Together, Chamberlin and Gallegly have all but taken off their shoes and banged on tables. Their noise carried. Last week, Gallegly had a meeting with Tom Tidwell, the chief executive of the entire Forest Service.
In response, Tidwell had Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation, write a conciliatory “let’s talk” note to Mike Mingee, head of the county’s Fire Chiefs Association and chief of the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District. While Harbour hardly agreed to all the chiefs’ demands, he acknowledged there was room for improvement when it came to the air tankers’ response time, which has been a significant bone of contention. To that end, Harbour said “the Forest,” as the Forest Service is referred to, “is committed to increasing the number of forest personnel.” While the chiefs are happy to talk, for the time being, they’ve taken the position that anything less than a complete return to full service is defeat.
An air-tanker base was first opened at the Santa Barbara airport back in 1958, and that was moved, abruptly in 2007, to Santa Maria. In 2009, the Forest Service downgraded the Santa Maria base from “full service” to “call when needed,” in part because so doing allowed budget-crunched Los Padres managers like Hernandez to lay off two positions — that of two tanker-base managers. That, Hernandez reckoned, saved her about $200,000 a year. How could she justify laying off other workers to keep two workers on payroll who, most times, had no job to do? At the time of the downgrade, the county’s fire chiefs howled in protest, objecting they were never consulted beforehand. Hernandez sought to quell public concern in an op-ed piece, insisting that the base’s ability to provide air-tanker support remained “unchanged.” She stated that the new agreement stipulated that fuel and retardant would be ready for pumping within four hours’ notice.
At that point, the Santa Maria base had set new records for number of aircraft fueled and loaded with retardant the year before during the Zaca Fire, the second-biggest forest fire in state history. In that fire, 2.5 million gallons of retardant were dropped; planes took off 1,700 times. After two months — and $120 million — the fire was out. Hotter summers and dryer, shorter winters conspired to spark countless backcountry conflagrations throughout the state. As the fires grew in size, frequency, and intensity, the Forest Service’s ability to fight back was hamstrung. Budgets were pinched. And the service’s flotilla of air tankers had shrunk from 47 to 16 due to safety reasons — and most recently, it’s dropped to 11.
When people look out and see fire in the forest, they automatically expect to see planes in the sky. But sometimes that’s not the appropriate response.”
The Forest Service was looking for ways to cut the astronomical costs associated with big, out-of-control fires. As Hernandez explained in a recent interview, “When people look out and see fire in the forest, they automatically expect to see planes in the sky. But sometimes that’s not the appropriate response.” And air tankers are expensive, costing, on average, $6,400 an hour to operate. One way to control expensive fires — and the Zaca campaign has certainly come in for plenty of criticism — is to impose conditions on how air bases can operate. Under the call-when-needed terms, a complex dance of steps must take place before tankers are allowed to start landing and loading. First, someone from the proper firefighting agency has to claim jurisdiction, a process that’s often more tricky than it sounds. Then the incident commander has to determine that the Santa Maria base, in fact, needs to be opened. That’s not always obvious either. After that, the Forest Service has to get a certified air tanker base manager onsite. Given that there are only 19 such certified managers in the entire State of California, that too can be extremely challenging. Critics of the call-when-needed approach say it’s taken 24 to 48 hours to get the Santa Maria base up and operating, and that the four hours promised by Hernandez has been a sham. Hernandez, for the record, disputes this claim.
One week after Hernandez’s op-ed ran in local papers, the Jesusita Fire struck. It was a week before the high-fire season officially started. There were no contracts in place with vendors. Planes hadn’t been unscrambled. According to the new call-when-needed policy, any air support for the fire needed to reload and refuel in Porterville. For pilots, that added 90 minutes to their drop-reload-and-get-back-to-the-fire round-trip. For retardant to be effective, it needs to be dropped with a certain degree of frequency. (To make their point, the chiefs included a report on the Highway Fire of September 2009, when planes had to fly over Santa Maria and go to a tanker base in Paso Robles to load and refuel. In that instance, the lead pilot concluded he could have made three sorties from the Santa Maria base in the same time it took him to make one from Paso Robles. In that fire, the tankers averaged nine drops per hour; had Santa Maria been utilized, it could have been 27. Planes, as everyone in the field acknowledges, can’t stop fires. But they can slow them down enough so that hand crews can put them out. Without a sufficient air attack, commanders insist they have to take a more cautious approach to the battle.)
At the beginning of the Jesusita blaze, three planes landed and loaded at Santa Maria, but Los Padres management called and shut down the Santa Maria base. The violent sundowner winds that caused Jesusita to explode wouldn’t kick in ’til the following afternoon. In the meantime, the fire chiefs contend, the firefighters squandered their opportunity to kill the fire when it was down. Hernandez and Anthony Escobar, Los Padres fire chief, dispute this depiction. Escobar pointed out that incident commanders have to justify the use of aircraft every single day. He noted that the Jesusita Fire did not appear threatening at all at the close of the first day, and suggested it was hardly a slam dunk that planes could have been authorized the second day. (Ray Ford, who covered the fire extensively for The Independent, recalled that firefighters were in “mop-up” mode by the end of the first day, and that some fire commanders were assuring residents the fire would be taken care of by the next day.)
In 2010, the Santa Maria base was never opened. This year, the base has been open the past two weekends. Hernandez and Escobar, anticipating possible trouble, assigned the proper personnel to the base in case lightning struck. When it did, the managers were already there, the retardant was ready for pumping within one hour and 41 minutes, and the fire was quickly contained. Both sides contend the Figueroa Fire — as well as the smattering of small backcountry lightning fires this past weekend — proves their point. Had the Jesusita Fire been fought with the same alacrity as the Figueroa, Chamberlin said, it would have been killed on day two.
Another difference between this year’s showdown between the fire chiefs and Forest Service and last year’s is the chiefs’ willingness to pool their financial resources to help the Forest Service out of any short-term jam a return to full service might cause. That may work, said Hernandez. But as intense as this face-off has been, it’s touch football compared to what may be coming. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio suggested the Forest Service wants to shift its mission to focus primarily on wildland fires. “They don’t want to deal with the costs of defending the urban interface,” he said. “That’s why they’re backing away.”
The Forest Service’s Escobar says as much. Currently, the Forest Service is financially responsible for fighting fires as they rage from the backcountry to the front country, as happened so dramatically four times in a one-year period. Escobar said that the financial burden of protecting one-half of the front country range has gotten too much. Tactically, he said, you can’t stop a fire that’s run halfway down the mountain. But as urban and agricultural uses proliferate in such areas, he said, the Forest Service will seek to change the contracts that obligate the Forest Service financially. “Oh, we’ll still fight the fires,” he said. But local governments, increasingly, will be expected to foot the bills. How much and when remain questions with distant answers. Should push come to shove over what’s dubbed “realignment” in government wonk circles, cash-strapped cities and counties will experience fiscal heartburn and sticker shock simultaneously. Escobar said the current statewide arrangement was negotiated 25 years ago, when CalFire and the Forest Service divvied up areas of responsibility. He said talks are currently underway between the two entities in Sacramento to revisit the terms, conditions, and responsibilities. To date, he said, no formal proposal exists.