But the commission had trouble keeping its word. Perhaps its most telling recommendation was the one to spend money on a public-education campaign to convince angry Californians that the use of aircraft to fight wildland fires is overrated, and partially a media creation. “Better public understanding of the appropriate use of aviation resources during wildfires is needed,” the commission found.
Today, Assemblyman Spitzer — who fought funding Measure D in Orange County — slams the commission for recommending “more study” of expanding California’s air support. “This was a real ‘wow’ move on the commission’s part,” says Spitzer. “You have got to be kidding me! More study of air support? These guys were supposed to say what California should do on air support, what we should do about the major problems out of 2003. One of the major problems was poor air support, lack of air support, confused air support. They avoid it. Wow. Just wow.”
IT’S STILL ABOUT the money — and that is a delicate matter. Potentially thousands of lives could be put at risk in California if the existing Wildland-Urban Interface, now hundreds of miles long, cannot be defended. Los Angeles County Supervisor Yaroslavsky, calling air support “extraordinarily valuable,” says the cost of leasing or buying more planes and helicopters “pales by comparison to the cost of not having it at the first sign of the Santa Anas. Look at what transpired [last week] in the communities that don’t have that kind of air response.” But so far, few political leaders are willing to find the money. Many are focused on less expensive policy ideas, such as training homeowners to create defensible space, urging smarter land use by cities approving new housing and other measures that will save property and lives — but don’t address how to fight fires racing toward existing communities.
Already, political leaders have promised that “hearings” will be held, again, to seek changes in how California deals with wildfires in the fringe communities. “I am not sure people are going to be able to have patios, gazebos. We will need lifestyle changes,” says Kehoe. Schwarzenegger, still riding his positive press on October 27, said “We’re going to analyze everything — how perfect of a job we have done.”
But no matter what these leaders do to change future behavior, millions of homes are already deep in the hills and ravines. And the lesson of 2007 seems to be that they are more vulnerable than ever.