THANK YOU, WILLY: Every time I see smoke on the horizon, I freak. I’m squirrelly that way. With that in mind, I was beyond relieved that firefighters managed to wrestle last week’s Gibraltar Fire into submission so quickly. A big and belated thanks goes out to former county supervisor Willy Chamberlin, who died of cancer a few months ago. More than anybody else, Chamberlin got our air tanker base reestablished in Santa Maria after a few years’ hiatus. That base proved absolutely critical for loading and reloading the 10 planes deployed and armed with chemical fire retardant. Without Santa Maria, the tankers would have had to fly in from much farther away. That translates to fewer drops and a less concentrated attack. That matters.
Chamberlin was the proverbial tall drink of water who favored cowboy hats, blue jeans, and platter-sized belt buckles. He was elected county supervisor in 1992 as the voice of ranchers and farmers railing against the environmentalist majority. He got on our bad side early, boasting he’d been endorsed by every newspaper on the South Coast. We hadn’t, and when we pointed that out, he explained he meant “reputable” papers. Relations went south from there. If we ever managed to get under Chamberlin’s skin — and we tried — he made a point to never let it show.
Ultimately, Chamberlin managed to lose the same election he won — after a grueling recount fight took place in several courtrooms. He left office, and we lost track. In 2011, he called out of the blue as if we were the best of friends. He was on a mission, and he needed a journalistic stooge.
At the time, Santa Barbara had barely escaped three massive back-to-back wildfires in 18 months. Compounding the problem, Santa Barbara found itself without an air tanker station, which had existed from 1958-2007 at the Santa Barbara airport. But it was too small, so it was shifted up to Santa Maria, which boasts one of the biggest airports in California. 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. Instead, we were notified, we could rely on “call-when-needed service” that would be provided out of bases in Lancaster or Paso Robles.
Local fire chiefs were kept out of the loop. By the time they knew what hit them, they were on their backs. Initially, Forest Service officials insisted they could have tankers in the air within 30 minutes. That got pushed back to four hours. But with the onslaught of the Jesusita Fire in 2009, we found out it was really between 36-48 hours. Early on during Jesusita, it turns out, three air tankers had been deployed out of Santa Maria. But Forest Service administrators grounded them. It wasn’t fire season yet, and no contract had been signed between the Forest Service and the private contractors loading retardant onto the planes. Thirty-six hours later, sundowners kicked in. What seemed like a punk-ass fire raged out of control. Eighty homes went up in smoke. By the time air tankers were activated, it was already too late.
In response, Congressmember Lois Capps worked to get the tanker base reestablished but met with limited results. Chamberlin, a Republican, went to work on the other side of the aisle. Chamberlin and the fire chiefs got resolutions of support from every city council on the South Coast. He got former Ventura County congressmember Elton Gallegly to set up a meeting with top brass from the Forest Service. He worked his connections for all they were worth.
Behind the scenes, Forest Service officials subtly suggested Chamberlin might be a tool for fire privateers who made money by selling retardant. They pointed out that the Zaca Fire of 2007 — the second-biggest in the state — cost $120 million to put out though not one structure was ever threatened. Even so, the Forest Service picked up the tab for 1,700 flights and 2.5 million gallons of retardant.
On the flip side, it turned out one of the Forest Service administrators most responsible for shutting down the Santa Maria base had recently retired and gone into business with a private firefighting-equipment contractor. He contacted the Santa Barbara Fire Department about leasing a massive super-scooper air tanker capable of dropping 28,000 gallons an hour. Given that the Santa Maria tanker base was shut down, he noted in his sales pitch, Santa Barbara might need one. Local firefighters went ballistic. Media stooges got called.
In response to the political pressure Chamberlin helped generate, the Forest Service announced it would reopen a tanker base in Santa Maria. In exchange, the locals agreed to pony up some of the resources needed to keep the base open. From what I’m hearing, that’s not happening. Given the escalating costs associated with front-country firefighting, that’s not cool, either. This summer, the Forest Service issued an official fatwa, noting that 52 percent of its budget is now spent fighting forest fires. In 1995, it was only 16 percent. In 2015 alone, California has experienced 5,225 fires, consuming more than 217,000 acres, and chasing 23,000 people from their homes. Five years ago, there were 2,400 fires and the acreage consumed one-quarter as much. Nationally, fire season is now 78 days longer than it was in 1970. In places like California, it’s somewhere between 300-365 days a year. In just the last year, the cost of fire suppression increased by $115 million. Since 1998, the number of firefighters hired by the Forest Service jumped from 5,700 to 12,000. Because of this, the Forest Service can’t do a lot of other things it’s required to do. Among the programs shortchanged are a host of fire-prevention initiatives designed to limit the intensity of fires once they start.
The punch line? The Santa Maria tanker base was, and is, invaluable. Thanks a bunch, Willy.