California is not the only affluent, technologically advanced area of the world where wind-whipped wildfires periodically threaten lives and property. Notably, residents of Australia and the southern European countries (Spain, France, Italy, and Greece) face wind-driven fire storms threatening lives and millions of homes. In these other countries, the manpower and ground equipment response to fire storms is much the same as ours in California. But the air power response is completely different. In other countries, military aircraft are mobilized for water drops immediately, and the response is both swift and major.
This raises the obvious question of why our military is not Johnny-on-the-spot when the Santa Anas blow and half a million Californians have been evacuated? We haven’t faced a calamity of similar scale since the Civil War! As the world’s only military superpower, our Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, Coast Guard, and National Guard have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft sitting on the ground and ready to pounce within a few hours flight time of Southern California. These craft are state-of-the-art. They are flown by the best- trained pilots in the world with an arsenal of technological support, including night vision, satellite GPS positioning, and the most sophisticated combat air traffic control. Many military pilots have combat experience and have full knowledge of how to do battle in concert with ground forces, be they soldiers or firefighters. As one exasperated Congressman noted during our 23 raging wildfires two weeks ago, if we can send these folks into war to drop bombs, we can surely use them in the homeland to drop water on fires.
There are several impediments to bringing our fire-fighting air power up to that of other countries. First is an archaic federal law dating back to the 1930s – before the United States even had an Air Force – that requires local authorities to deploy all private contractor aircraft before the military can be called. This explains the slow-to-assemble ragtag “air force” of vintage craft from as far away as Texas in our skies during the fires. Incredibly, the 1930s law puts the financial interests of a handful of flyboy wildfire wildcatters ahead of the safety of millions of Southern Californians (including firefighters on the ground) and their property. The law can be changed. We just need the will.
Laws that restrict the role of our military on domestic soil are another impediment. We need to redefine those restrictions to exclude urgent humanitarian missions, especially firestorms. Our military can drop supplies to tsunami survivors in Indonesia, but they are not allowed to drop water on Topanga Canyon. The restrictions can be modified. We just need the will.
Bureaucratic turf battles may be the single biggest impediment. Something called Cal Fire in effect assembles its own ad hoc “air force” when fires erupt. No other country in the world handles wildfires this way. There are many excuses Cal Fire offers for keeping military support grounded, especially in the critical early hours of a fire: the pilots need special training; Cal Fire spotters have to be on every craft; incredibly, the various agencies don’t share radio frequencies and therefore can’t communicate (right out of the Old Testament’s Tower of Babel!). These impediments can be overcome. Damn the bureaucrats, full speed ahead! We just need the will.
What about safety? It is time to take our fire hat in hand and go visit Australia and Spain and see how their military air forces fight wildfires safely. We just need the will.
And finally, what about cost? It may sound naïve, but the aircraft don’t belong to the military, or the county, or the state – they belong to we the people, taxpayers. There is a famous story about Lyndon Johnson visiting Vietnam during the war, and as he strode onto the tarmac to fly to his next stop, a young enlisted man said, “This helicopter is yours, Mr. President.”
“They are all mine,” replied Johnson.
Wrong! You and I pay for the aircraft, and when the fires are raging, we want them used, and used in great numbers, to protect lives and property. We shouldn’t have to move to Australia for common sense to prevail. For the military, it may mean reassigning one percent of an aircraft’s lifetime mission to domestic humanitarian service. So be it. We have equipment. We have the pilots. We have the technology. We just need the will.
So meet “The Thousand Plane Pledge.” We live in a state that recalled the previous governor over a few cheesy power outages. Meanwhile, in the last four years firestorms have repeatedly destroyed thousands of homes, killed and maimed our fellow Californians, and displaced over half a million. In the future, the threat of recall should be at the doorstep of every city, county, statewide, and federal office-holder who fails to pledge, and effect, a commitment of 1,000 aircraft when the wildfires rage: 100 craft watered and ready to pounce when the winds are predicted; 500 aircraft in the skies in the first 24 hours when it is clear that disaster is raging; and 1,000 aircraft within the first two days when much of Southern California is ablaze and hundreds of thousands have been evacuated.
Never again do we want to hear Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather’s October 23rd plea: “If we had more air resources we would have been able to control this [Santiago] fire.”
We have the resources. We just need the will.