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Monday, Oct. 29, 2007 | The firestorm that tore through Southern California has been viewed nationally as President Bush’s first major test in responding to large-scale disasters since the mishandled recovery efforts of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But here in San Diego, the issue is being looked at with a much finer point as the region reacts to the assistance it has received — or will receive — from the federal government.
Measuring the federal government’s success in this area is complicated. The speed and scope of the federal support that can be sent to a devastated region such as the Gulf Coast or San Diego County depends heavily on the swiftness with which local and state officials ask for help as well as their willingness to use it.
And because its duties lie primarily in providing post-disaster relief by doling out loans and grants to help rebuild lives and communities, the real test of the federal government’s mettle, experts said, lies in the weeks and months ahead.
“There’s been a lot of superficial talk about whether the feds passed,” said Warren Eller, associate director of the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at Louisiana State University, “but right now, that’s all it can be.”
The scorching fires, however, have also spurred renewed calls to expand federal duties to protect the American West from the ever-increasing wildfire juggernaut, by purchasing a costly amount of firefighting equipment or intervening in the planning for local development.
That hasn’t prevented local and state officials from congratulating each other and the Bush administration for their labors in combating the fires throughout the county, which ravaged more than 360,000 acres of San Diego County’s backcountry and suburbs.
“Anything we need, he’s been glad to help us get,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said last Monday at CalFire headquarters in East County, with the columns of smoke from the Harris Fire in his view.
Relief to disaster zones such as hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes officially became a federal responsibility in the 1970s, when Congress began allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the U.S. government’s responses to disasters.
At the request of a state’s governor, the president begins the process by declaring a disaster zone, as he did on Tuesday, two days after firestorms began sweeping across the region. However, agencies such as the military often begin mobilizing before the declaration, as they did last week, in an attempt to respond more quickly.
Thus far, federal agencies have had their fingerprints all over the region’s response to the fire. In San Diego, where local emergency officials began preparing for the firestorm about 20 hours before it ignited Oct. 21, the federal government’s aid touched firefighting efforts almost from the beginning in some areas, as fire crews from the U.S. Forest Service rushed to federal woodlands that were in danger. NASA helped map the fires with satellites.
However, the immediate help that some were expecting from military aircraft was sidelined during the fire’s early stages when state fire officials kept them grounded, citing safety concerns.
Additionally, at least one local official, San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman, said she was unaware — initially, at least — that some equipment from the military could have been requested to dig fire breaks and clear brush. She noted that it would have helped combat some areas of the fire, but would not have significantly stemmed the fires’ reach.
However, the region shouldn’t have to rely so heavily on federal help in fighting fires, she and other local fire leaders said, pointing to shortfalls in personnel, equipment and other fire protection funding that are suffered in the region.
“We can’t look to the federal government to be the first line of defense. The feds are the ones who come late in the game,” said Carlsbad Fire Chief Kevin Crawford, who is serving as a fire coordinator for the county. “The reality is we need to staff up in San Diego County.”
Away from the fire lines, the federal government helped bolster the American Red Cross’ sheltering efforts by providing beds. The military even offered up four of its ships, some of which that would only accommodate a few hundred people, to aid evacuation efforts, if necessary.
But as the flames begin to die down, FEMA will be busily processing the financial aid that individuals, businesses and local governments will be seeking in the next several weeks and months.
Individuals whose homes were made unlivable by the infernos can receive up to three months worth of temporary living assistance as well as low-interest loans Other homeowners can seek funding to make repairs if damages were sustained from the fires.
FEMA will pay unemployment benefits to workers whose businesses were destroyed for up to six months. The Small Business Administration will loan those businesses up to $1.5 million each to get up and running after the blazes. The Department of Agriculture extends a similar loan program, of up to $500,000, to farmers whose crops were destroyed in the firestorms.
For the county, its cities and local American Indian tribes, they can receive up to three times the amount they will spend themselves on reducing the public health risks that were caused by the fires.
And as is the case with many aspects government, even the process of responding to catastrophic events is not above politics, experts said.
President Clinton used the disaster declaration powers most frequently, which led to some criticism that he was too generous with federal aid to curry favor with the public.
In an attempt to avoid the disorganized response to 1992’s Hurricane Andrew that his father oversaw, the current President Bush moved rapidly and poured what some experts called an “excessive” amount of money into relief for Florida after several hurricanes battered that important swing state in 2004, just as he was running for reelection. “They poured out a lot more money than they should have by a long shot,” said Brian Gerber, a public administration professor at West Virginia University.
The Republican affiliation shared by Bush, Schwarzenegger, Mayor Jerry Sanders and all five of the county Board of Supervisors certainly won’t hurt the region’s rebuilding efforts, experts said.
But as the federal government begins reacting to the last week’s fires, some experts are calling for a stepped-up part for the federal government in preparing and preventing firestorms.
Richard Carson, a University of California, San Diego economist who studies government responses to natural disasters, said the federal government can only prevent the large-scale tragedies of a firestorm by moving massive amounts of fire engines, bulldozers, water-dropping aircraft and firefighters on military cargo planes as soon as weather conditions permit for a wildfire.
If firefighting resources had been mobilized in the 48 hours before the fire started — when the weather forecast called for whipping Santa Ana winds and dry heat — they might have been able to make it to the scene of the fire before it transformed into an invincible stew of jet-black smoke and 100-foot flames. Currently, firefighting equipment is spread throughout the vast acreage of federally owned land across the western United States.
“When these conditions happen, the norm is going to be for a big fire of this sort. You know these conditions when you see them coming,” Carson said. “Instead, the federal government has been AWOL.”
By the time federal aircraft was ready, the firestorm was too wild for aircraft to fly into the plumes of whirling ash and debris, CalFire officials determined.
That decision ignited an assault by the region’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. Duncan Hunter, an East County Republican. Hunter has advocated that military aircraft be left unfettered by the state when it comes time to fighting wildfires.
But another expert said the federal government should play a more relevant role well before fire season. Tom Campanella, a University of North Carolina professor and former firefighter who authored the book “Resilient Cities: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster,” suggested Congress play a role in designating urban boundaries to curb development into the backcountry.
Campanella said local governments don’t have incentives to limit sprawl into wilderness areas where fires begin because they depend on development to add to their tax rolls.
“This is a tinderbox ready to go,” he said. “I do think there’s a legislative … role for the feds to play in assuring that development doesn’t occur in high-risk areas in the future.”
But Campanella cautioned that, even in the near wake of a disaster like the fires, government is often stagnant in taking on major overhauls or spending projects despite the devastation wrought. The federal government, for example, has ignored calls by the Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s internal watchdog, for more than a decade to establish a multi-agency strategy for quickly responding to wildfires — along the lines of Carson’s proposal.
“There’s a bit of inertia in the post-disaster era,” Campanella said. “You’d think you would try to reboot the system, but that actually doesn’t happen very often after these things.”