Sitting Idle While Southern California Burned

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Rand Simberg points to this alarming-if-true report about firefighting resources that sat on the ground while the hillsides were being scorched. Excerpt:

The Southern California wildfires were raging in four counties and a thousand homes had already been lost, yet it would be a week before the Air National Guard fire-fighting C-130 air tankers could fly.

The Air National Guard has not been allowed to use its airborne fire-fighting resources in a timely fashion because of the claim by private airborne firefighters that the military unfairly competes with them. They keep the government at bay by threatening law suits based on the Economy Act of 1932 which bars the government from competing with the private sector. Powerful lobbies such as Helicopter Association International (HAI) have argued that until *every* private airborne fire fighter is employed fighting fires, the government cannot use its military assets to combat fires. So the big planes just sat on the ground while Southern California burned.

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  1. Ah, turf wars…

  2. Tell ya what, I’d be mighty pissed off if my house burned to the ground or family were harmed while contractors duked it out with the government over this. This is one of those situations where government provided services make sense. So, do the owners of the affected properties get to take legal actions against this lobby group? I sincerely hope there is more to this story than the apparent greed of a few individuals.

  3. Wow. Matt Welch has not found a way to blame me for this mess ?!!!!!

  4. I think it’s time to throw a few more lawyers on the fire. Everyone who lost a home before the C130’s were allowed to fly should file suit against the HIA.

    I think the government should also be looking into criminal charges related to the 16 deaths the fires have caused so far.

    If that doesn’t work lock officials from HIA in a room with small group of now former homeowners and handfull of people who were fighting the fires on the ground. Tell them that they will be rescued by police as soon as everyone in private security is working.

  5. Hey! Let’s all give the AFL-CIO a hand. Power to the people – workers of the world, unite!

  6. Does anyone else notice that the nominal libertarian position (replace government services with private sector services) is on the wrong side of the issue?

  7. Keith, it depends on whether or not you consider firefighting a vital service that should under the aegis of government services.

  8. Why wasn’t the private sector fleet fully deployed in the first place?

  9. Firefighters themselves are scratching their heads over the politics! Click on my moniker to see what some of them are saying.

    Two of my youngest brothers are on the simi valley blaze while the rest of my family who are firefighters are sitting idle in No Cal and OR polishing the chrome on their engines!

  10. Keith-

    There’s a problem here: Libertarians don’t like the government, but they don’t like unions either. So we’re busy trying to figure out which knee-jerk reaction we should have.

  11. My family is all in Simi. But ok.

    Anybody hear Phil Hendrie last night, during the second hour? Bobbie and Steve Dooley were complaining about how firefighters weren’t doing enough. They carried out demonstrations in their backyard to show that you can stop fire with water. A real laugh factory. Good times. Life immitating art and all that.

  12. I would point out a few things:

    1. The Economy Act of 1932, on its face, provides that an agency can request services from another government agency if “the head of the agency decides ordered goods or services cannot be provided by contract as conveniently or cheaply by a commercial enterprise.” 32 U.S.C. 1535. That prerequisite seems to have been satisfied here. So the law on its face does not prevent the government from calling in military fire-fighting aircraft.

    2. Even if this were a close call, it seems to me unlikely that a government official would refuse to make that call for fear of litigation, because government officials have access to effectively unlimited, personally costless legal services for decisions taken in their official capacity.

    3. In light of the enormity of the disaster in California, I find it difficult to believe that lobbyists are threatening lawsuits to get their clients a couple weeks’ work, given the massive PR backlash that could result.

    4. There are good reasons to think that a lawsuit is not particularly likely to be successful (assuming in the first place that you can bring a private action under the Economy Act, which I’m not sure about). If the lawsuit sought an injunction barring the use of government planes in these circumstances, it would certainly fail, because any harm to private interests could be remedied later with damages. If the lawsuit sought damages after the fact, I suspect a court would regard the claim as graspy and would be predisposed to look for legal grounds to dismiss the case. (For example, generally speaking courts will not review the decisions of government agencies so long as they are reasonable; I find it hard to believe that a court would hold that an agency’s decision under these circumstances would be unreasonable.)

    So why make this claim? I suspect that someone who’s a pal of the Pentagon and/or its contractors is looking to provide another revenue stream to the Pentagon and (it follows, as night follows the day) a reason for the Pentagon to buy more hardware. Accordingly, that person has jumped on the California fire as a pretext for knocking out the rule preferring private contractors to government agencies in the case of the Pentagon.

    Or perhaps I’m just a cynic.

  13. Fixed-wing aircraft like the C-130 are only nominally effective in high-wind, canyon-burning fires. Before jumoing to the conclusion that these aircraft were arbitrarily grounded because of the Economy Act, I’d like to hear whether the firefighting agencies coordinating the air attacks a) needed them; b) wanted them; c) requested them but were turned down, or d) didn’t ask for their deployment because they had limited utility. With all due respect to the Congressman humping this story, what do the firefighters say in the field?

  14. According to the Ventura County Star, the California National Guard DID have aircraft, pilots and support personnel deployed — helicopters more able to navigate the winds and steep canyons. The C-130s likely stayed grounded for tactical reasons. Sounds like the local congressman is pushing a red herring for political gain. Don’t you love politicians who can turn out press releases before the embers are even cool?

    http://www.staronline.com/vcs/county_news/article/0,1375,VCS_226_2385078,00.html

  15. Sounds like the local congressman is pushing a red herring for political gain.

    Whew. Finally, something in this story that libertarians can agree is a Bad Thing. Wouldn’t want dissension to break out in the massed ranks of libertarians marching lockstep into a Glorious Future.

  16. C’mon Matt. When a politician says “But it’s not the government’s fault” you ought to know there’s more than they’re fessing up to.

  17. From what I understand from watching TV news that’s been running constantly since these fires started, the biggest and most damaging of these fires burned for about a day in a small area while there was little wind. The wind picked up on the second day and the thing spread like crazy. I think that deploying the planes in the early stages of the fire could have prevented a hell of a lot of damage. The TV news originally said that the planes weren’t deployed because they were being serviced since the normal fire season had already passed by.

  18. The same Congressman arranged last year for the Guard to purchase those aircraft from Lockheed Martin, and is angling for another defense appropriation to buy more c-130s for the same purpose. Think he (and his handlers at Lockheed) have an agenda?

  19. On another note, I’ve been watching a lot of news coverage of these fires, and it seems like a lot of these houses catch fire when relatively small cinders hit the right spot on the house and start it going. So I wonder if there’s something homeowners can do to save their own houses. Staying at home and trying to defend your own house sounds tempting, but people that do that tend to just get in the way of firefighters. But I wonder if it’d be feasible for people to cover their own houses in some kind of fire-retardant tarp. Certainly such a thing wouldn’t be 100% effective, but wouldn’t it be effective enough to be a worthwhile investment?

  20. Ok… I grew up in Ramona, CA in SD county. We had fires literally all the time. What humored me is that the reports on the news channels stated that only 2 or 3 planes were on the Cedar Fire. If that’s true, that’s gross mismanagment. My house was in the hills and you could watch the bore’ (sp?) bombers take off for fires. At some points there were easily 10-12 of those things fighting much smaller fires. Just from that fact, I’d say somebody screwed up.

    Speaking of screwing up. Not to belittle or make light of a mistake of the unfortunate folks who lost their homes, but I’m a bit saddened and perplexed by the sight of gigantic swimming pools right next to burned out homes. Why didn’t anyone spend the $1000 to buy a solid sump pump that doubled as a fire house. I know they exist, it just seems ridiculous to me that no one seems to have one. Better yet, the media should have found companies that could provide them to people. Great business for someone out in CA.

  21. Right, better to let someone else defend your property. The government’s on YOUR side, remember. No one in government has any personal agenda or greed whatsoever.

  22. My fault, I shouldn’t have started talking about people being responsible for their property or at least trying to look out for it(especially $500-700,000 homes). I’ll just go back to reading mother jones.

  23. Andy,

    Maybe duct tape would work!

  24. Hey! Let’s all give the AFL-CIO a hand. Power to the people – workers of the world, unite!

    Hmm, brilliant comment. Obviously, it is union workers who own the Helicopter Association International and who worked to pass the law from 1932! On the other hand, I don’t think so.

  25. The Antelope Valley Press reports that the Air National Guard and its firefighting C-130s WERE activated — but that the fixed-wing aircraft were grounded by high wind conditions. They were able to fly only on Monday, after the Santa Anas abated.

    “Although activated Saturday, high winds kept the unit’s two C-130s out of the skies until Monday.”

    http://www.avpress.com/n/westy1.hts

  26. Being on the east coast I haven’t seen much about the fires except on Drudge’s links. I was wondering, how high are they going to hang that “lost hunter”?

    Did they catch the people in the van?

  27. Steve, thanks for the great link! I’m looking over the website right now. My big question now is why this isn’t much more popular.

  28. Yes John,

    Organized Labor is a big supporter of the Economy Act of 1932. Sorry, but the leftie crybabies can’t have it both ways……

  29. It is a relatively new product. The inventor went to a trash fire and noticed that soiled diapers (sopping wet cotton weave) resisted being burned quite well and that gave him his idea to develop the retardent foam you can spray on your house.

    🙂

    PS Saw it plugged last night on MSNBC (they claimed they normally don’t plug products, but under the circumstances…)

  30. Steve, thanks. I haven’t seen it mentioned on the news… I’m glad it’s getting some air time. I don’t own a home right now but I’ll certainly make the $320 when I do. And I’d expect fire insurance agencies to offer at least that much in discounts for having the product.

    It looks like the stuff was developed back in 1997… this idea is so good, I’d have thought six years would be enough to make it very popular.

  31. anonymous asking about the lost hunter — a point that Mike Davis makes persuasively (at least to me) is that we get too hung up on the spark, as opposed to the fuel. Years of drought + extreme Santa Ana conditions (hot & humidity-free winds gusting down through the steep canyons) create conditions that make fires nigh on unavaoidable. Are some arson & man-made? Sure. I’d also guess that you could pull a bonehead flare move more often than not without torching 500 homes or whatever. There are 16 separate fires burning right now — the conditions were just too perfect, methinks. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prosecute, just that we should also think of the context.

  32. All the more reason for monolithic and geodesic domes, not to mention earthships. Stop building tinderbox housing out of wooden frames.

    Keith, your analysis is flawed – the government is still involved in contracting and deploying the fire-fighting aircraft. Everything from regulating which companies can fight fires to the routes they have to take in the air to the chemicals they can use to fight the fire is enforced by the government and is inefficient.

    This isn’t a case of the private sector screwing up where the government could do a better job, it’s another example of a big business using the government to restrict competition.

  33. Okay, I can’t resist…

    The National Guard actually can’t use their planes because Bush has them on standy for Iraq (out-of-control oil fires burning desert scrub, etc.). So, if Bush had NOT invaded Iraq, those planes would have been able to douse the SoCal fires in short order, and many Americans’ lives would not be in such turmoil right now.

    IT’S ALL SHRUB’S FAULT!

  34. Does anyone else have a problem with links here in Hit&Run? When someone posts a link here, all I can do is click on it and see it in this mini window that can’t be resized. If this is a common problem, it would be much better if people just copied the url instead of making a link. Just a suggestion.

  35. Andy D:
    I just right click and select open link in new window. It also gives me a chance to comment on said link.

    TX TOM:

    Don’t let Michael Moore find out. I can see his next book now: “Dude, Where’s My Fireman?”

  36. JSM, thanks for making me feel stupid! Yeah, right-clicking works perfectly well. Thanks.

  37. Prevent Fires – Prune the Bushes in 2004?

  38. People seem to have deluded themselves into thinking the “miltary” is some magic force that eradicates all bad things.

  39. Can I just say that the fire is over we should put forth our effort to help those who lost their homes and rebuilding our communities. Fires such as the cedar fire damage communities like my own forever. We will be looking at the results of something as horrible as this for years. Be incouraging and don’t wast time. Yes the government could have done some things a lot differently but there are familyies who need help and support now, and I mean right now! Help them.

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