STUPID IS AS STUPID DOESN’T: I see from the newspapers that professional hockey season is threatening to intrude into the summer. And pro basketball has so thoroughly transcended its origins as a winter sport that new seasons now begin before the previous ones conclude. With this in mind, who can blame fire season, the scariest spectator event of them all, for following suit? As anyone living in Southern California can attest, there’s no longer any such thing as “fire season.” On any given Sunday — or any other day of the week — our beautiful backcountry can explode into a screaming inferno and come sprinting down the mountains. Call it climate change. Call it stupidity. But always make sure you have at least a few planes — fixedwing tankers — you can call. Trust me, we will need them. Our most recent scare — the White Fire — thankfully and mercifully appears to be under control. It was apparently started when some chucklehead got the bright idea to dispose of his smoldering charcoal embers from his barbecue and dump them onto dry, parched grass. Thankfully, a brand-spanking-new NextGen jet air tanker was parked at the air tanker base at the Santa Maria Airport at the time and could drop a load almost immediately. Even so, what started as a five-acre brain fart combined with some very pissed-off winds to become a 2,500-acre nightmare. For us, this year’s “season” officially started May 9 with the 51-acre Rock Fire just a few miles outside of Santa Maria. A couple of Einsteins with itchy trigger fingers decided to blast away at targets they’d laced with chemical explosives. They just happened to pick an exceptionally hot and windy afternoon to do so. It was their good luck, and ours, too, that a couple of air tankers just happened to be parked up at the Santa Maria Airport — California’s second biggest by the way — ready for action.
The fact is luck had little to do with it. It was politics. And in this case,things played out right. In 2006, the U.S. Forest Service moved its tanker base at the Santa Barbara Airport — where it had been for 48 years — to Santa Maria’s because Santa Barbara was just too small. But after the Zaca Fire of 2007 — which gobbled up 240,000 acres of prime backcountry real estate — the Forest Service downgraded the Santa Maria base from “on call” to “as needed.” As one federal bureaucrat once chided me, words matter, and in this case, they do indeed. On paper, “as needed” allegedly meant tankers could be scrambled from semi-faraway places like Lancaster or Porterville and be here in 34 minutes. After that, it would take another three to four hours to assemble the crews needed to pump the planes full of retardant. But in actual practice, it took much longer, anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. The fire chiefs squawked. The retardant contractors joined in. So, too, did the politicos, and banging the gong loudest were right-wing conservatives like former congressman Elton Gallegly — who steadfastly refused to talk to me even when I was trying to give him good ink —and former county supervisor Willy Chamberlin. And Lois Capps had her oars very much in the water, too. To be fair, the Forest Service was then — and still is — under intense fiscal pressure, and every year, firefighting operations consume a bigger chunk of its shrinking budget. Its brass was seriously bugged that record sums had been spent dropping gazillions of gallons of retardant on the Zaca Fire, which — despite its size — threatened nobody. So why spend $200,000 to employ a couple of highly trained personnel to sit around and do nothing most of the time, they asked, in the off chance a fire might break out.Why,indeed? People love to complain about paying firefighters to sit around and occasionally run steps at the City College track. Me, I just love to see a firefighter doing nothing. It clearly beats any of the alternatives. The good news is that the Forest Service relented and restored Santa Maria to full-service, meaning crews and tankers are stationed at Santa Maria, ready for action. No doubt it helped persuade Forest Service brass that Santa Barbara had endured no less than three soil-your-pants-scary backcountry wildfires — the Gap, the Tea, and the Jesusita — within an 11-month period, in which 300 homes were lost and 20,000 acres went up and smoke.
By restoring Santa Maria to full-service, we managed to plug a relatively small leak. The big one remains the much diminished size — and geriatric age — of the Forest Service fleet of air tankers. In 2000, there were 43. Since then, it’s dropped to 20, then 11. Last year it was nine. This year, it’s back up — at least theoretically — to 26. That’s because the feds approved a contract to build seven new, bigger, faster jet tankers at a cost of $261 million. It’s not clear, however, how many of those have been built yet and how many have yet to be constructed. That’s for the entire U.S. of A.? I truly don’t get it. Cities and counties throughout California are falling all over themselves to secure multibillion-dollar drone contracts so we can determine with pinpoint precision how many drivers are picking their noses at the traffic signals. Where are the politicians clamoring for more air tankers? We’re supposed to be happy that we now have roughly half as many tankers as we did 13 years ago? Is it not relevant that 12 of the hottest years in recorded history have taken place in the past 15 years and that the size and intensity of forest fires has grown exponentially at the same time? In case you’re counting, the Forest Service reckons “fire season” lasts 78 days longer now than in the 1980s. If the Department of Homeland Security can shell out taxpayer dollars to buy snow-cone machines for local governments and send elected officials to high-tech security retreats at swanky resorts featuring staged zombie attacks, then maybe Homeland Security could also broaden its purview to include out-of-control forest fires.
In the meantime, we always have ice hockey in the summertime. So, how ’bout those Kings?