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Like a Dog on Fire

So Long, Willy Chamberlin


SO LONG, WILLY: Over the years, I managed to have considerable sport at the expense of Willy Chamberlin, the longtime Santa Ynez rancher and former 3rd District county supervisor who died of cancer two weeks ago. It should be acknowledged Chamberlin gave as good as he got where The Santa Barbara Independent was concerned. In the last analysis, I’d say he got the last word. Given what that word was, I was happy it worked out the way it did.

Angry Poodle

Chamberlin was the proverbial tall drink of water who dressed in a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and a belt buckle the size of a Thanksgiving turkey platter. Back in 1992, Chamberlin ran for county supervisor as the outraged voice of ranchers and farmers against the prevailing environmentalist majority. Weirdly, Chamberlin managed to lose and win simultaneously, and in so doing he broke the hegemony long enjoyed by the Goleta slow-growth cabal and Isla Vista eco-warriors who had successfully strip-mined the youthful idealism of UCSB students, converting it into a formidable political machine. [See Kelsey Brugger’s cover article on the same.] Chamberlin managed to get on our bad side early, proclaiming in the June primary that he’d been endorsed by every newspaper on the South Coast. It simply wasn’t true. When we pointed out that neither the Daily Nexus nor The Independent had endorsed Chamberlin, he elaborated how he been endorsed by every reputable paper. Needless to say, we milked our aggrieved sense of offense for all it was worth.

As a supervisor, Chamberlin wasted few opportunities to gut, hobble, or otherwise hamstring anything that vaguely resembled an environmental regulation. If we didn’t report on his every move, it wasn’t for lack of trying. To the extent we ever got under Chamberlin’s skin, he never let it show. In person, he was in-your-face cheerfulness personified. That being said, Jerry Cornfield, the Independent reporter then covering county government, did note with alarm how Chamberlin would twist his nipples whenever the opportunity arose. While I never experienced this — or even witnessed it — Cornfield is genetically incapable of exaggeration or hyperbole, so it must be true. Accordingly, I remained outside Chamberlin’s striking distance.

Although Chamberlin “won” that election by just a handful of votes, the results would be challenged in court and then challenged again. When the dust settled, Chamberlin had lost, I think, by just two ballots. After serving two years of a four-year term, he was forced to step down. After that, I kind of lost track. Many years later, in 2011, I got a phone call from Chamberlin. It was as if we’d always been best friends. The conversation resumed as if the banter had never stopped. He was on a mission, and he needed a journalistic stooge. Naturally, he was polite enough not to put things so crudely. But I would be that stooge.

Chamberlin was on the warpath. Santa Barbara was in the throes of the three biggest, scariest, back-to-back wildfires we’d ever experienced. Making matters worse, Santa Barbara no longer had an air-tanker loading station of its own to fight such infernos. From 1958-2007, such a facility existed at the Santa Barbara airport. But it was too small to handle the demand without inconveniencing other airport operations. In 2007, the air tanker base was shifted up to Santa Maria, which boasts the biggest airport on the Central Coast. Two years later — in 2009 — bean counters with the cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service determined they could save $200,000 a year if they shut down Santa Maria’s full-service air tanker base completely. Instead, we were notified, we could rely on “call-when-needed-service” provided out of existing bases in Lancaster or Paso Robles.

Not cool.

Even less cool was the fact that this move was orchestrated by Forest Service brass with absolutely zero input from our local fire chiefs. By the time they knew what was about to hit them, they were already on their backs. Initially the sachems running the Forest Service assured Santa Barbarians they could have the air tankers in the air — with bright orange fire retardant raining down — within 30 minutes. That sunny boast quickly got pushed back to four hours. But with the onslaught of the Jesusita Fire in 2009, we would find out the real time was between 36-48 hours.

Any fool can Monday morning quarterback a raging inferno in hindsight and do a better job than the poor slobs who actually fought it. But with Jesusita — in which 80 homes went up in flames — the fools might have a point. Early on in the Jesusita Fire, three air tankers were deployed out of Santa Maria, but Forest Service administrators ordered that aerial action grounded because no contract had yet been signed with the private contractors loading the planes with retardant. For the next 36 hours, there would be no raging sundowners. Nor would there be any air tankers in the sky. As a result, what had been a punk-ass fire rose out of its own ashes and royally kicked the South Coast’s ass. Once the Forest Service got around to activating the air tankers, we discovered it would take them three times longer to come in from Paso Robles than if they’d flown from Santa Maria. In fighting fires, frequency matters. A lot.

Chamberlin went to work. Congressmember Lois Capps had already tried shaking this tree, but with no evident change in direction. As she kept shaking, Chamberlin jumped in, working Republicans in Congress whose administrative assistants once worked for him on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building. Chamberlin and the fire chiefs made the rounds to every city council on the South Coast, plus the County Board of Supervisors, getting resolutions of support signed. He got former Ventura County congressmember Elton Gallegly involved. Gallegly was famous at the time for being a right-wing grump who never returned constituents’ phone calls. Although I was not a constituent, I can attest he never returned one of my calls. Gallegly got a meeting with the Forest Service top brass. After that, they sent out conciliatory letters to the fire chiefs.

Behind the scenes, Forest Service officials sought to suggest Chamberlin was a tool for private interests making money fighting forest fires. Chamberlin, they said, was tight with vendors who sold the retardant and who got paid per flight; it was all about the money. And admittedly, a lot of money was involved. For instance, in 2007, the backcountry had been hit by the Zaca Fire, which despite its mammoth size — second biggest in state history — threatened no human habitation. Even so, the Forest Service wound up spending $120 million in two months to cover the costs of 1,700 flights and 2.5 million gallons of retardant. At that time, it cost $6,400 an hour to keep a tanker in the sky. That’s serious dough. Those were the whispers about Chamberlin, and those were the facts.

But there were other facts, and they proved just as venal and embarrassing to the Forest Service. While covering the Jesusita Fire, I came across some high-ranking firefighters — extremely disgruntled about the loss of our air-tanker base — who were uncommonly loose-lipped in my presence. And yes, some of them happened to be tight with Chamberlin. It turned out, they complained, that the very Forest Service administrator who concocted the scheme to shut down the Santa Maria base had just gone into business with a private fire fighting company. That same person had sent a letter to the Santa Barbara City Fire Department asking if its commanders were interested in leasing a Martin Mars super-scooper air tanker with the capacity of dropping 28,000 gallons an hour. After all, the letter noted, Santa Barbara now found itself without its own air tanker base. In the event of a serious fire, it continued, the timely deployment of all available resources was absolutely crucial. Having just eliminated this vital service, presumably the letter writer would be in a position to know how sorely it would be missed. For the local fire chiefs, that was more than a little much. Loose lips were strategically allowed to spray. The spray hit my ears. Was I used? Absolutely, but happily so. Was it a story? Absolutely.

In the meantime, the local fire chiefs agreed to pony up some of the resources needed to the Forest Service to reopen the Santa Maria air-tanker base as a full-service retardant station. Everybody got something. The Santa Maria air base was returned to full-service mode. In the first fire to hit Santa Barbara after its reinstallation, tankers were unscrambled, loaded, and in the sky within one hour and 41 minutes.

Thanks to the bird-doggedness of Willy Chamberlin, Santa Barbara got a relatively happy ending for a reality that’s getting scarier and scarier every year. The fire dangers and associated costs of fighting fires confronting the Forest Service are huge. This week, the department issued a bombastic broadside — in the form of a bureaucratic report — declaring “Enough!” It’s chilling stuff. In 1995, only 16 percent of the Forest Service budget went for fighting fires. This year, it’s 52 percent. In 2015 so far, California experienced more than 4,300 fires, consuming almost 120,000 acres. Five years ago, the number of fires was only 2,900 and the acreage consumed one-fifth as much. Fire season is now 78 days longer — nationwide — than it was in 1970. In many places — like California — fire season runs at least 300 days. Climate change may still be a four-letter word in some political quarters, but at the U.S. Forest Service, those four letters spell F-I-R-E. Between last year and now, the cost of fire suppression increased by $115 million. Since 1998, the number of firefighters hired by the Forest Service has increased from 5,700 to 12,000. Because of this, the Forest Service can’t do a lot of other things it’s supposed to. Or required to do. Among the programs short-shrifted are a host of fire-prevention initiatives designed to limit the intensity of fires once they start or stop them from starting in the first place.

I’ve always been mystified that more fear-mongering politicians looking for a good red-meat issue to demagogue have not seized upon this one. No exaggeration is even necessary given the essential grimness of the underlying facts. Future forest fires aren’t a matter of “if,” so much as “how big?” “how many?” and “how close?” With all this in mind, I’d like to say a heart-felt if belated thanks to Willy Chamberlin for banging the gong as loud and effectively as he did. If that’s his last word, we should all be thrilled to let him have it.



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