As the smoke begins to clear in San Diego, the stories and reactions to the fire will start competing with the recovery effort atop the fold. First on the minds of many in government seems, not surprisingly, to be response time and firefighting capacity. Unfortunately, Republicans are again demonstrating that they make up in bluster what they lack in remote semblance of coherence.
Southern California Republican Congressmen such as Duncan Hunter, Brian Bilbray, Darrell Issa, Jerry Lewis, Elton Gallegly and Dana Rohrabacher have been lining up for every available reporter to knock Governor Schwarzenegger and the state’s CalFire bureaucracy for supposedly impeding firefighting efforts throughout the region last week. They’ve flown so dramatically off the handle in fact that even Chris Reed has it right on their craziness- or at least part of it:
“The congressmen who are doing such a good job exposing the state’s bureaucratic tomfoolery in its wildfire response have some explaining to do themselves. Couldn’t they have spared an earmark to cover the cost of outfitting the California Air National Guard’s C-130 with a fire-retardant tank, something that was promised to happen after the 2003 wildfires but never did?
“Instead, Duncan Hunter funneled $63 million into the DP-2 Vectored Thrust Aircraft boondoggle. And Dana Rohrabacher worried more about buying expensive planes the military didn’t want than about helping California’s wildfire-fighting capacity. This is from a May story in the Washington Post:
“… Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has made one of the biggest earmark requests in the new Congress, seeking $2.4 billion to build 10 more C-17 planes — which the Pentagon has said it does not need.
These gentlemen have ended up discussing almost every issue in the country, all in the context of the fire. And they’ve managed to be completely wrong every time. So without further ado, an “oh the humanity” sampling from the past week.”
Certainly the loudest complaints have come over the 36 hours that passed before military aircraft could be cleared to fight fires. This delay apparently had to do with dangerous winds and CalFire’s insistence, later dropped, that all aircraft must fly with a CalFire spotter. Without a doubt, there’s a discussion to be had about this process and almost certainly it will be coming soon. Indeed, Rep. Rohrabacher wailed that “The weight of bureaucracy kept these planes from flying, not the heavy winds…When you look at what’s happened, it’s disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that’s put tens of thousands of people in danger.”
On Thursday morning, the U-T fireblog reported 40-45% containment of the Horno/Pendleton fire, 20% containment for the Witch Creek and Rice Canyon fires, 10% containment of the Poomacha fire and no containment estimate of the Harris fire. These fires were, clearly, still mostly out of control. Yet neither Rep. Rohrabacher nor his Republican colleagues from throughout the region objected to President Bush’s Thursday visit to the area that grounded all firefighting aircraft for several crucial hours. Rep. Brian Bilbray, who represents areas that were still burning at the time, even joined the President. For a group so concerned about rapid air response, the silence here is deafening.
San Diego’s GOP Congressional delegation (Bilbray, Hunter, Issa) blasted specifically the policy of, well, requiring a trained crew and compatible equipment. They specifically targeted the CalFire policy of requiring a ‘military helicopter monitor’ as responsible for keeping eight marine helicopters on the ground during the early stages of the fire.
But if you listen to CalFire’s chief of aviation, you get a slightly different story. Michael Padilla, who actually does this for a living, said that laying blame entirely on bureaucracy would be “‘absolutely wrong. Those aircraft could have been used had they had properly trained crews’ and proper equipment, including radio systems compatible with ones used by California fire agencies. ‘They represented a hazard to themselves and to the rest of the people.'” Presumably the sort of necessary training and equipment could have been provided in the four years since the 2003 Cedar Fire. Certainly Congress promised to outfit military C-130s with necessary firefighting tanks after the Cedar Fire and never delivered, a failure which Rep. Elton Gallegly terms “an absolute tragedy, an unacceptable tragedy.” Left out of lamentation over that tragedy is any note of the fact that Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress during and after the Cedar fire and that all of these Republican Congressmen save Bilbray were part of that majority. But they never actually delivered the goods.
The SoCal GOPers are infuriated that the country’s business would carry on without them as well. Despite everyone knowing full well that none of them would vote for it and the outcome was never in question, Jerry Lewis was one of many who were indignant over the most recent SCHIP vote on Thursday. He asserted that at least Republicans were not elected to help children, blasting Democrats for “showing a blatant disregard for the people we are elected to represent and are trying to help.” At least he was good enough to say it outright instead of forcing us to infer based on his voting record from the past 27 years.
But perhaps nothing has whipped local Republicans into a frenzy more than the implication that there might have been ways different than Republican second-guessing which might have been helpful. Senator Barbara Boxer for example noted:
“Right now we are down 50% in terms of our National Guard equipment because they’re all in Iraq, the equipment, half of the equipment. So we really will need help. I think all of our states are down in terms of equipment.”
You might that Republicans who had been champing at the bit to get the military more involved faster would also lament this lack of response capacity. Yet Rep. Brian Bilbray instead “said the global warming and Iraq war concerns are coming from ‘the `blame America first’ crowd in Washington.'” This being the same Rep. Brian Bilbray who blamed CalFire for keeping potentially hazardous helicopters out of the air. I guess blame is alright as long as it’s directed at someone else. Bilbray also went on to explain that, essentially, everything being said about preventing or better reacting to such a fire said by a Democrat is wrong because these sorts of things “are caused by winds that have been around for thousands of years.” Somehow I’m not comforted to know that Bilbray’s plan is to just accept the inevitability of it all. Especially when he’s complaining about the response.
But it all comes down to feigned outrage over “politicizing” disaster. I’m less interested here in casting blame than I am for demanding accountability, both for words and actions. For comparison’s sake, Rep. Susan Davis, San Diego Democrat, visited today with Navy families who had been evacuated to the local Naval Amphibious Base and praised the military’s “amazing response to the fires here in San Diego,” expressing her appreciation for the military’s help to the entire community. This juxtaposed with Rep. Lewis railing last week that “The Democratic leadership is once again showing that they only care about scoring political points.” SoCal Republicans are up in arms accusing Democrats of playing politics, but it certainly seems as though the GOPers have found plenty of politics for themselves. While it’s important to learn lessons from each experience, pointing fingers isn’t productive. Michael Padilla perhaps explained it best: “We want to get it (the response) better, too,” Padilla said, but “we would like to wait until after the crisis is over.”
Lucas O’Connor blogs on local, state and national issues from San Diego. He is a member of the editorial board at Calitics and has previously worked with BlogPac.