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Flaming Dogs

STINKY: Political backdraft over decision to downgrade readiness of our air-tanker base


STINKY: Sometimes, Sigmund Freud once said, a cigar is just a cigar. But then again, Freud also said there’s no such thing as a coincidence. I have no idea how to reconcile these contradictory notions, especially when it comes to the alarmingly suspicious letter Dennis Hulbert sent to City Hall last June trolling for new business. Normally, I’d be inclined to say the letter smells really fishy. But that might leave me vulnerable to a slander lawsuit brought on behalf of fish. Hulbert now works for a private company called Tule River Logistics, which is in the business of leasing out huge World War II–era planes to bomb out-of-control fires with chemical retardant and water. But until very recently, Hulbert worked as the regional aviation officer for the Los Padres National Forest. When forest fires broke out in Santa Barbara’s increasingly explosive backcountry, it was Hulbert’s job to figure out which air tankers to dispatch to the scene to help put them out. Given the number and magnitude of the conflagrations engulfing our backcountry in recent years, this qualifies Hulbert as the most important person most of us have never heard of.

Angry Poodle

Just before he retired from the Forest Service, Hulbert produced one of those classic studies that on its face seemed to defy all common sense. The study concluded that the Forest Service could downgrade the full-service air-tanker base it maintained at the Santa Maria Airport to “call when needed” status without any loss of fire-fighting capability. To shut up any doubters and skeptics, Hulbert prepared one of those indecipherable maps with concentric circles emanating from all 19 air-tanker bases in the state. The punch line was that no matter where you lived, the Forest Service could have air tankers dropping Phos-Chek on your head within 30 minutes. In other words, don’t worry, be happy.

The good news, at least for the Forest Service, was that by downgrading the Santa Maria base, it could save a couple hundred-thousand bucks a year. Based on the hypnotic power of the concentric circles Hulbert drew on that map, Forest Service officials did just that back in 2009. There was no consultation, no stakeholder meetings. By the time Santa Barbara’s eight fire chiefs knew enough about the plan to object, it was already done. But object they did. By running air tankers out of faraway bases in Lancaster and Paso Robles, it would take considerably longer to get tankers to Santa Barbara. Initial response time, they argued, was critical if you wanted to keep small fires from getting out of control. Santa Barbara, they pointed out, has had some of the biggest fires — front country and back — in the nation. Accordingly, it’s also had its own air-tanker base. From 1958-2007, it was at the Santa Barbara Airport, and in 2007, it was moved to Santa Maria, which, as the second-largest airport in California, can handle a lot more and a lot bigger air tankers.

I bring this up because the fire chiefs are once again raising hell to get the Santa Maria air-tanker base restored to full-service status. In the fires since 2009, the 30-minute response times Hulbert promised with his circles on the map have not materialized. Not even close. Nor has the four-hour response time subsequently predicted by Los Padres Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez. In fact, the fire chiefs claim, most of the response times have ranged between 24 and 48 hours. In fact, some of the chiefs and their co-conspirators have all but blamed the Jesusita Fire and the 80 homes it burned down on the decision to downgrade the Santa Maria base. You can argue that one a lot of ways. But it would have undeniably helped had Santa Maria been made available before the sundowners kicked up a full 36 hours after that fire started.

On June 14 last year, Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio got a letter from Hulbert. He announced he’d since retired from the Forest Service and was now working for Tule River Logistics. His company owned one of the biggest fire-fighting bombers on the planet, a Martin Mars super scooper capable of dropping 28,000 gallons an hour. Hulbert noted with an astonishing lack of irony — or shame — how it had come to his attention that “The community of Santa Barbara presently lacks air-tanker coverage.” Hulbert’s role in creating this predicament went unmentioned. I find it reassuring to know that even now, some things still remain unmentionable.

Hulbert pointed out that recent Senate hearings have underscored the “political drive to assure the Forest Service is provided with every available resource to manage fire suppression. An emphasis was placed on the need for good initial attack.” Funny, that’s exactly the same argument the county fire chiefs made against all of Hulbert’s circles. To make the deal happen, Hulbert notified DiMizio he was ready, willing, and able to do the political arm twisting, heavy lifting, and baby kissing “to pressure fire management agencies and our elected officials.”

I don’t know Dennis Hulbert. He’s probably a great guy. Maybe he feels bad about downgrading the Santa Maria air-tanker base. Maybe he was just hoping to make amends for what he did while working for the Forest Service. But when I left messages at the numbers he provided DiMizio — “Feel free to contact me,” he wrote — I got no call back. Likewise, I got nothing when I emailed him. I guess I’ll have to wonder what his true motivation was. In the meantime, Freud may have been right; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. He certainly smoked enough of them to know. But it’s also worth remembering cigars gave Freud such bad mouth cancer they had to surgically remove much of his jaw. The pain was so bad Freud killed himself.

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