The Anti-Government Ideology that Left Orange County to be Inadequately Protected from the Southern California Firestorm9 min read

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My article, “How Anti-Union, Anti-Tax OC Conservatives Defeated Adequate Fire Protection in 2005,” seems to have struck a nerve among Orange County conservatives. Subsequently, the Orange County Register, whose editorials against Measure D in 2005 were a prime target of my article, devoted their lead editorial to the charges I laid out in the original article.

It’s understandable that conservatives bristle at being called to account for the catastrophic outcomes of their ideological agenda. The devastation wreaked on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina irreparably damaged the Bush Administration and set the Republicans on the long road to losing the Congress. Millions of Americans saw the effects of Grover Norquist’s “drown government in a bathtub” strategy. The Register‘s editorial pages, long devoted to a similar anti-government, anti-tax, anti-union agenda, have a clear interest in distancing themselves from last week’s disaster.

But their editorial defense does not quite achieve its objectives. The Register does not rebut the fact that OC firefighters lacked necessary equipment that Measure D would have funded. More importantly, the editorial actually reinforces my core argument – that the conservative agenda the Register and others in OC promoted is intended to leave Californians lacking adequate fire protection and placing their safety in the hands of a private market.

First, it’s worth reviewing the basic charges. Last weekend the Register‘s own reporters explained that Orange County Fire Authority lacked basic resources needed to battle back the fast-moving and unpredictable Santiago Fire in its crucial first hours:

Two of the Orange County politicians now complaining about the lack of air support for the Santiago Fire opposed firefighters’ effort to purchase new helicopters and trucks two years ago. In fact, county officials today are sitting on more than $80 million in excess revenue from a statewide public safety sales tax adopted 13 years ago. That surplus has been a longstanding sore spot for OC firefighters, who at times this week were so overwhelmed they had to seek refuge inside fire retardant tents.

The firefighter’s 2005 ballot initiative would have redirected a small portion of the 1/2 cent sales tax, providing $8 million for new helicopters and $33 million for new fire trucks.

The LA Times also reported about the shortages:

[OCFA] fire engines were staffed below national standards, it had fewer firefighters per capita than neighboring counties, and its army of men and women ready to fight the blaze may have been weakened by changes in the county’s volunteer firefighter program…. “We’re out there with a handful of crews trying to stop this big fire, and all we could do was just put out spot fires,” said Chip Prather, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. “It would have been great to have the cavalry come in, but there were several fires burning, and it was taking time for the resources to get here.”… The size of those crews was one way that Orange County fell below the national standard. Most of the county’s engines were staffed with three people. Four per engine is the voluntary minimum standard from the National Fire Protection Assn., a private organization that writes fire safety guidelines. Crews with three firefighters work more slowly than larger crews, according to a study by the Insurance Services Organization, a national group that evaluates fire departments.

Todd Spitzer, a Republican Assemblymember from Orange, was another target of today’s editorial for his criticisms of equipment shortages. On Tuesday he explained the lack of resources left parts of central Orange County vulnerable on the fire’s critical first night:

The evening the Santiago fire began, Chief Prather and I stood at the Foothill (241) Toll Road and Santiago Canyon Road, watching firefighters set backfires to consume fuel that would have sent the fire into East Orange. Homes in north Tustin were threatened when the fire jumped the 261 Toll Road, potentially burning into Lower Peters Canyon. Homes in Irvine, at Jamboree and Portola Parkway, were nearly lost. We had no relief for the “left flank” of the fire. That portion of the fire was slipping toward Foothill Ranch and northeast Irvine. But structure protection was the focus, so all our ground resources were in Irvine. I was on the phone repeatedly with the Office of Emergency Services regional command based in Riverside, which was charged with prioritizing all the requests for assistance based on need. Orange County kept getting told that the Santa Ana winds would keep the fire burning toward Irvine. We warned, however, that the fire was slipping south and if it crossed Santiago Canyon Road because of a wind shift, it would burn out of control. Our concerns were dismissed as not consistent with weather predictions.

(North Tustin, where I was born and raised, is where most of my family still resides.)

The situation Spitzer describes is fundamentally one of a shortage of resources. With more trucks, helicopters, and firefighters, Spitzer and Chief Prather’s concerns might not have been dismissed.

Yesterday’s editorial, however, addresses neither of these concers about equipment shortages. Instead they try to claim that the Proposition 172 system of allocating public safety funds worked – despite the fact that, in 2005, Steven Greenhut, the senior editorial writer for the Register, denounced California taxpayers as “weak” for having approved Prop 172 in November 1993, in the aftermath of the 1993 firestorms.

For instance, the Measure D battle two years ago was over the disbursement of Proposition 172 sales-tax funds that voters had already approved for public safety. Conservatives were on both sides of the issue as the firefighters sought to take a share of tax dollars that mostly had gone to fund the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office. This wasn’t about “stingy” taxpayers unwilling to pay for public safety, as the liberals allege, but about divvying up the taxpayers’ money among agencies.

But the Register’s own reporting contradicts this. To revisit the Register article discussed above:

In fact, county officials today are sitting on more than $80 million in excess revenue from a statewide public safety sales tax adopted 13 years ago. The firefighter’s 2005 ballot initiative would have redirected a small portion of the 1/2 cent sales tax, providing $8 million for new helicopters and $33 million for new fire trucks.

Redirection of some Prop 172 monies toward fire protection was one of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission recommendations. Nor is it clear that Measure D would have negatively impacted the OC Sheriff’s Department or the District Attorney’s office as claimed. The Yes on D campaign explained – as illustrated by their mailers, which anti-Measure D blogger Matt “Jubal” Cunningham thankfully preserved for posterity – that even with this redirection of part of OC’s Prop 172 allocation, the OCSD and DA would both continue to see increased budgets from Prop 172.

The editorial points out that Orange County and San Diego County are not the only California jurisdictions with underfunded fire protection. But they neglect to explain the source of that problem – in SD, OC, and statewide, it has been 30 years of conservative anti-tax policies, from Proposition 13 to the opposition to Measure D, that has left public services destitute.

However, neither the technical details of Prop 172 allocation nor Orange County’s fire protection needs were at the heart of the conservative anti-Measure D campaign that the Register championed two years ago. As I explained on Sunday, the attack was really on unions and public employees. Greenhut compared the fight between the Sheriff’s union and the firefighters’ union to the fight between Hitler and Stalin. Cunningham believed that beating back the power of government employee unions was the main reason to oppose Measure D, even going so far as to say the firefighters threatened basic rights.

Sadly, last week’s editorial repeats these arguments:

We pointed out at the time that the average salary and benefit package for firefighters in all categories was about $175,000 a year.

In other words, public fire protection should come at the cost of public employees. They should have to give up health care, pensions, and pay before taxpayers are asked to reallocate already-collected monies to better tackle OC’s perennial firestorms. Apparently, the Register does not believe that firefighters should be able to afford to meet OC’s sky-high cost of living.

Finally, the editorial goes on to validate my conclusions that stinginess with public tax money would lead conservatives to suggest turning everything over to the market. As I wrote on Sunday:

It seems unlikely that Orange County conservatives will be giving up their virulent anti-tax, anti-firefighter crusade even in the aftermath of October’s firestorm. Instead we should expect them to ramp up their argument that private enterprise and the market will do a better job of fighting fires than “greedy” public sector employees.

That is precisely what the Register did in its editorial:

A broader goal would be more privatization efforts and more private ownership of land. Private firefighting firms would have a financial interest to promote prevention, and more private ownership of land would mean better-maintained property. Private owners are far better at protecting their property than public owners, who follow an entirely different set of objectives.

This is already happening here in California, as Bloomberg News reported last week:

“What we’re trying to do here is provide our policyholders an additional level of protection,” said Stan Rivera, director of wildfire protection for AIG Private Client Group. The average home insured by the unit is valued at $1.7 million…. The Wildfire Protection Unit has six trucks outfitted to spray Phos-Chek, the fire retardant used by the U.S. Forest Service. Customers can have Phos-Chek sprayed on brush surrounding their homes before each fire season. During a wildfire, the trucks are sent out whenever a fire comes within three miles of a home and spray all combustible areas. Such protection doesn’t come cheap. It’s available only to customers of AIG Private Client Group, which serves affluent individuals and their families. The average customer spends $19,000 a year on the insurance, which may also cover yachts, art collections and ransom demands, Rivera said. AIG Private Client Group has about 55,000 customers throughout the U.S., Rivera said. California is “one of the biggest” markets for the group, he said.

If you can’t afford this coverage, though, you’re screwed:

Some victims of the California fires may wish they had their own firemarks. During this week’s wildfires, “there were a few instances where we were spraying and the neighbor’s house went up like a candle,” Crays said.

This is the future the Register happily embraces – public fire protection should be underfunded; any attempt to rectify this is an illegitimate grab by overzealous, anti-liberty public unions and their overpaid, greedy workers; and members of the public should be on their own when it comes to fire protection, regardless of ability to pay.

For the thousands of Orange County residents who could not possibly afford this kind of fire protection, the Register’s far right ideology leaves them with nothing. Here’s to hoping that my beloved home of Orange County will finally wake up to the agenda that their conservative elite is promoting.

Robert Cruickshank is currently completing a Ph.D. in US history through the University of Washington. He is a Californian through and through, however, born and raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley. He resides in Monterey, California, where he is active in supporting sustainable development projects, public transportation systems, and other progressive policy goals. This article originally appeared in Calitics and is republished with the permission of the author.