California Needs to Fight Fire With More Air Power

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Andrew Melese
Opinions Editor

Over the past 25 years, California has greatly increased its capacity to combat fires. Yet, over the same period, more acres were burned, and more millions in property were lost, than in the 25 years before. California desperately needs to augment its firefighting capacity in order to have a fighting chance in protecting homes and cherishing wildlands from an incendiary demise. The best way to do this is by increasing California’s firefighting airpower.

Most of our increased capacity to fight wildfire has come from converting military air power into firefighting airpower. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), our state has either unilaterally or cooperatively (along other state agencies) converted nearly a dozen different types of ex-military or commercial planes for fire combat. They have done as much with nearly as great a plethora of helicopters; and the combined fire fighting capacity these aircraft provide is daunting.

Nevertheless, according to fire.ca.gov, during six different years since 1997, the number of properties lost to wildfire exceeded 1,000. That is just in California, mind you. Wildfires have been searing more damaging swaths across much of the USA over the same period of time. According to statistics provided by fire today.com, from “ the mid-1980s through 2015 the average number of acres burned has grown from about two million acres a year to around eight million” in the U.S.

Often, when a dry year hits California, it hits much of the West. And when multiple wildfires are dispersed across multiple states, the diffuse layout of fire combating airpower renders airpower less effective.

This poses a logistical problem for California, which has the second largest land area of any state in the contiguous U.S. Many of the converted aircraft are not owned by any California agency but are shared with us by private companies via (typically) nonexclusive contracts.

Thus, when a hot, dry spell leaves, say, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas in blazes — in addition to ourselves— we often lack as much agency to combat wildfire as we would in a more ideal year of disaster where only California has large fires. If we could have more aircraft at our exclusive call, we could save far more homes and wildland during drought years in the greater American West.

On that basis, our state devotes roughly $1.4 billion per year to wildfire prevention. In most years when particularly large wildfires emerge — among them 2003, 2007, and 2008  — we exceed this budget and pass emergency measures for additional funds that often lead the state into a fiscal deficit.

Since we end up lacking sufficient airpower to prevent calamitous property loss and wildland damage — incurring a deficit to boot in the process — California ought to create a larger fleet of fire combating airpower exclusively owned by the state.

California can think of the investment as wildfire related deficit mitigation and a method of preventing anywhere near as many homes from being lost when the American Southwest finds itself in a particularly hot and dry year. Scientific climate models suggest we can expect a plenitude of such years. California’s firefighting airpower ought to be similarly plentiful.

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