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Fire and the Cost of Politics

Copyright © 2003 by David E. Ross

A major infestation of bark beetles caused the death of thousands of pines and other trees in the mountains of southern California. Recognizing that the trees — dead but still standing — would be a serious fire hazard, outgoing California Governor Gray Davis applied for a federal grant in April 2003 in the amount of $430,000,000 to help cover the cost of removing them. Over 70% of that money was planned for removing dead trees from national forests and other federal lands, for which the state of California could not pay.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held the request until 24 October, when it notified Governor Davis that his request had been denied. On that same day, the worst wildfire event in the history of California began.

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Copters Halted as Fire Began

By Matt Lait and Scott Glover
Times Staff Writers
October 31, 2003

SAN DIEGO — Helicopter pilots with the San Diego Sheriff's Department wanted to conduct aerial water drops on the Cedar fire shortly after it was ignited Saturday but were prohibited from doing so by the U.S. Forest Service, sheriff's officials said Thursday.

One sheriff's helicopter was flying back to an air base to pick up a "Bambi bucket" capable of dropping 100 gallons of water when the pilot was ordered to stay away from the fire, said Chris Saunders, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

Another sheriff's pilot said in an interview with The Times that he believed the fire could have been extinguished if an air assault was launched when the pilots volunteered to help and the fire was still relatively small.

[At the time in question, the fire covered about 20 acres. So far it has burned 281,666 acres and is not yet under control. While the U.S. Forest Service claims they were concerned about the safety of the helicopter pilots, the pilots are professionals with the San Diego Sheriff's Department and have their own, proper rules for protecting their safety. 2 Nov 03]

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Now that the fires are almost contained, here is the toll (so far):

Figures updated from 2 Nov 03 Los Angeles Times

Since President Bush has now declared the affected counties to be a disaster area, FEMA will be responsible for reimbursing the state and local governments a major portion of their fire-fighting costs, issuing grants to property owners whose homes and businesses were destroyed, and providing low-cost and subsidized loans for rebuilding. The overall cost to FEMA could exceed $5,000,000,000 (again, that's billions), more than 10 times the amount of the grant that would have prevented this disaster.

While it is true that FEMA rarely — if ever — makes a grant to prevent a disaster, this instance clearly called for preventative action. I cannot belive that mere bureaucratic inertia caused the denial of Governor Davis's grant request — a request that actually asked the federal government to cover the cost of removing dead trees from its own land. I really believe that politics strongly influenced FEMA, an agency of the Bush administration. After all, the federal government is in the hands of the Republican Party while California is a strongly Democrat state.

Between the denied FEMA grant and the interference by the U.S. Forest Service, it appears that the Bush administration wanted the forests to burn. After all, the devistation has given new life to Bush's "Healthy Forests" plan, which would not have prevented this disaster in any way.

1-2 November 2003

Sources: Los Angeles Times and Yahoo/Reuters

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