Federal Official Local Wildfire Preparedness in Parklands
• Interior Secretary Says Saved Houses Are Proof that Fuel Modification Program Works
BY HANS LAETZ
BY HANS LAETZ
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was briefed on Malibu-area fire issues last week, as the cabinet officer from Washington took a quick hike along a ragged ridge above Malibu where the Canyon Fire was stopped last October.
The secretary was in the Santa Monica Mountains to talk up a federal program aimed at removing fire fuels from federal lands. While here, he was briefed on the conflicting orders given local homeowners about brush clearance and nearby environmentally sensitive habitat areas.
Kempthorne also said he would look into a California U.S. Senator’s complaint that federal officials have failed to provide promised aerial firefighting planes, and said $1.6 billion was spent between 2001-08 on reducing fuels on 10 million miles of federal lands, mostly in western states. Environmentalists have criticized federal efforts for concentrating on timber harvesting and ranching enhancements at the expense of the environment.
But the Interior Secretary said most of the effort has been to increase defensible spaces on urban-wildland interfaces, and he pointed to unburned houses along Rambla Pacifico, surrounded by singed brush, as “proof of the effectiveness of the defensible space program.”
National Park Service rangers told Kempthorne of local worries about contradictory directions from fire safety officials and Coastal Commission requirements that environmentally sensitive habitat area not be cut down even if they are near houses. “We are going to have to hear about efforts to reach a solution there,” Kempthorne said.
The former Idaho governor noted that 1.5 million acres in Florida and other drought-stricken Southeast states have burned this year. “The rising cost of fuel is certainly going to impede us this year, but certainly not on the initial attack,” he said. “Safety is our primary issue and we will get the job done.”
Kempthorne was interviewed last week while surveying fire lines on Rambla Pacifico near Saddle Peak, where flames were stopped on the eastern flank of the Canyon Fire last October. He also visited fuel-thinning projects in Chesebro Canyon, north of the 101 freeway.
He said he will look into the status of key National Guard aircraft based at Point Mugu that still do not have necessary replacement equipment they need to drop flame retardant on brushfires.
“If there is a problem with that apparatus, that is something we will look into,” said the member of President George Bush’s cabinet.
The C-130 Hercules aircraft stationed by the California National Guard at Point Mugu have been useless for firefighting for two years now, because an aircraft upgrade has left the planes incapable of loading the large cargo sleds that can hold water and mix it with fire retardant.
In addition, the sleds that have been in use for decades for fighting wildfires across western states are old and worn-out, and incompatible with the new-generation C-130s now protecting California at Point Mugu, 15 miles west of Malibu. Six C-130s are stationed at the Channel Islands National Guard Station, next to Navy Base-Ventura County.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., last November demanded that the Air Force and U.S. Forest Service solve the problem before this summer. The problem still persists, and last month Feinstein demanded that the White House move two C-130s from the Midwest to Point Mugu now.
Not having the planes ready, Feinstein wrote the White House, “is contrary to a commitment” made by a White House official last November. “The result will be that tens of millions of Californians will not have access to this important firefighting resource for yet another year.”
Kempthorne said last week that the federal government is not shy about moving aircraft like C-130s, equipped with the right gear, out west in advance of hazardous fire weather events. “This is what we did last October, days in advance of the big Santa Ana events that took off [with fire] in Malibu,” he said.
But no C-130s were used during the big firestorms that struck San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles counties last fall. Other planes, including a modified DC-10 leased to the State of California, were used in the Malibu fires.
Feinstein complained last month that the closest C-130s “are almost a thousand miles away, and it will take nearly a whole day for them to be deployable in my state.”
Kempthorne said he was familiar with the issue, which is being handled by the Defense and Agriculture departments that run the military and Forest Service, but not his Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management and National Parks Service. Because of his lack of jurisdiction, he said he has only a passing knowledge of the issue.
An alphabet soup of various firefighting agencies was visible during Kempthorne’s visit last week, when no fewer than seven different agencies with local firefighting responsibilities showed up at Los Angeles County Fire’s Camp 8 to talk with Kempthorne.
Present were firefighters or rangers from Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the Mountains Conservation and Recreation Authority, State Parks Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, BLM and NPS.