The numbers are staggering – 1,400 wildfires burning around the state. Over 70 homes destroyed and 7,800 under threat. President Bush has declared the fires a federal emergency and released $50 million in federal aid, announced by FEMA administrator David Paulison – surely a sign that the feds are fully engaged in the fire aid effort, right?
Not so fast. There is a difference between an “emergency,” which frees up something like the $50 million in firefighting funds, and a “federal disaster” declaration, which frees up the full range of FEMA assistance to fire victims, including relocation shelters and financial assistance.
According to the Monterey Herald the federal government has refused to declare the California fires a disaster:
“But assistance from FEMA for fire victims has not been approved because the fires have not been declared a federal disaster.
“Paulison said a preliminary damage evaluation will be done to determine if more declarations are needed.
“Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, said he was told it does not appear California’s wildfires qualify as a federal disaster because the level of destruction has not been great enough.”
It’s conservative government in action – the stingy nature of FEMA assistance that was revealed to the world during Hurricane Katrina continues to dominate the Bush Administration’s approach to disaster relief. As a Daily Kos diarist has explained FEMA is screwing around with Midwest flood disaster relief and of course, FEMA’s initial reaction to last fall’s fires here in California was to host a news conference where its employees posed as actual reporters and lobbed softball questions at FEMA administrators.
California’s fire season is going to be long and difficult. As the Big Sur and Goleta fires show, a rapid response by firefighters is necessary to saving homes and lives. Unfortunately a combination of drought and a lack of firefighting resources is intensifying the fires.
Understaffing is one of the main issues facing firefighters, as the Firefighter Blog makes clear:
“Fire has jumped a southern containment lines and crews are attempting to hold a secondary dozer line with limited resources. Structures, heavy fuel loads due to sudden oak death, . Active fire behavior on the southern end and north of Pfeiffer State Park is becoming a challenge to containment actions. East Zone: Numerous structures and improvements located in the proximity to Carmel Valley Road and Tassajara Road areas. Limited access. Extremely steep and rugged terrain with continuous heavy fuel loading. HEBM is needed for military assets.”
“It seems improbable this fire could move that far north but Commander Deitrech has a tired army under his watch. Under “normal” conditions he would already have the necessary resources to mount a proper attack. Like all the other fire commanders statewide he is simply understaffed.”
If this is a problem now, one shudders to think of what will happen this fall when the Santa Ana winds kick up across a bone-dry Southern California. FEMA’s stinginess and the lack of adequate firefighting resources are both the product of conservative opposition to government – the only body in our society that’s capable of managing a response to disasters of this magnitude.
Big Sur Ablaze
The Basin Complex Fire that is raging on the Big Sur coast about 20 miles south. The fire jumped a containment line last night and is now threatening the village of Big Sur. The entire area is now under an evacuation order, and the 850 or so residents are now gathered at Carmel Middle School or with friends and family in the area.
The Big Sur community has always been tight-knit, and grew even moreso in the late 1990s after El Niño rains washed out Highway 1, closing it for months. One result is a rich online network of sites providing information and resources about the fire, such as Xasáuan Today’s fire news and Sur Fire 2008’s community information.
The Carmel chapter of the Red Cross is taking donations for the shelter and other needs.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was here earlier today surveying the fire damage, and John Laird had this to say:
“Governor Schwarzenegger’s visit to Big Sur today is a significant indicator of the impact the Basin Complex fire is having on the people of the Central Coast and California. The people and businesses of the Big Sur community have shown courage, resourcefulness and generosity as this difficult fire has unfolded.
“Today and in the weeks ahead, as I continue to work hard on the budget in Sacramento, I will stay focused on ensuring funds are available to fight this fire. And as we consider next year’s budget, I’ll continue to advocate for the funding increases for air attack resources, as approved by the Assembly Budget Committee.
California’s firefighters are stretched thin by the fires, and Arnold has called the National Guard to help relieve the burden. Another example of how we need to be nation-building here at home, not using the National Guard to occupy Iraq.
Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. A native Californian, he was raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley.
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