On Thursday Kirk Murphy wrote a compelling piece at Firedoglake, "Drown it in a Bathtub?" - How Grover Norquist, the Club for Greed, and Arnold Let SoCal Burn, explaining how anti-tax sentiment in San Diego County left firefighters without adequate resources to respond to this week's inferno.
Unsurprisingly, this has happened elsewhere. As firefighters battle to save Silverado Canyon and prevent the Santiago Fire from reaching Riverside County homes, we are now learning that Orange County firefighters faced similar crippling shortages of equipment and personnel - shortages that prevented them from being able to quickly extinguish the Santiago blaze.
Specifically, Orange County Republicans campaigned hard against Measure D, a 2005 ballot proposal that would have diverted $80 million in surplus public safety funds from Proposition 172 to help properly staff Orange County fire departments. The failure of Measure D leads directly to the OCFA's inability to quickly contain the Santiago Fire when it broke out Sunday evening.
Before the Santiago fire started in the hills northeast of Irvine, the Orange County fire department already had been hobbled.
Its 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.
Why was the OCFA shorthanded? Why didn't they have enough funds to adequately crew their engines? Because conservative Republicans fought efforts by the OCFA to get more funds to hire trained firefighters. Friday's Orange County Register explains:
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 ½ cent sales tax, providing $8 million for new helicopters and $33 million for new fire trucks.
But the entire Board of Supervisors, the sheriff and district attorney opposed the measure, saying it was an attempt to pick the pocket of county law enforcement. County voters rejected the initiative, with 73 percent voting no.
This week, State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange and Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell joined Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather in blaming state fire officials for not sending enough air support during the early hours of the fire.
Spitzer called the lack of resources being delivered by the state "unconscionable."
That rankled firefighters, who remember that both Campbell and Spitzer campaigned against their funding measure and signed the ballot arguments against it.
The opposition to Measure D was led by virtually the entire Orange County law enforcement establishment, and its elected political leadership:
The county supervisors, Sheriff Mike Carona, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs and the Orange County Employees Association all fought a bitter campaign against the ballot measure, titled Measure D.
Supervisors Campbell, Spitzer and Chris Norby argued that the union-sponsored initiative sought to cover bad spending practices by the fire authority and dip into critical law enforcement resources....
Campbell saw Measure D as a move by the firefighters' union to "add new union members."
He came up with a novel idea for thwarting the ballot initiative: The supervisors placed three other initiatives tinkering with proceeds of the public safety tax on the ballot.
The Register article conveniently does not mention that the paper's own notoriously right-wing editorial pages - known for a history of virulent anti-tax, anti-union attitudes - also opposed Measure D:
"D is For Deception"
Some political battles remind me of the bloody fight between Stalin's communist forces and Hitler's Nazi forces. For whom do you root? You root for a very long war.
At first glance, taxpayers might be justified in taking a similar view with regard to Measure D, the countywide ballot initiative Nov. 8 that pits some of the most aggressive and self-interested government unions against each other.
If the unions spend their dues pounding each other, one might reason, perhaps they will have less money to spend on the liberal causes they typically endorse.
Despite such well-warranted cynicism, on closer examination it is imperative that taxpayers defeat Measure D, which represents a new low in money grabbing by an already well-funded special interest.
The whole of the editorial is a typically disgusting attack on firefighters, government, regulation, etc, concluding that Californians were "weak" to pass Prop 172 in 1993 for public safety funds, even though they did so just a week after the 1993 firestorms had gutted Malibu, Altadena, and Laguna Beach. To Steven Greenhut and the Register editorial board, the firefighters' union is merely a greedy parasite on the public, using bureaucratic rules to claim they need more fire crews in a cynical ploy to line their own pockets.
The Register was not alone in the attack on firefighters and Measure D. Harry Sidhu, a member of the Anaheim City Council, wrote to the paper to express his opposition to Measure D:
Moreover, while the fire authority has mutual-aid agreements with other agencies to respond to major emergencies, it does not serve the entire county every day. Its mission is to protect the 43 percent of the county's population that lives in its contract cities and unincorporated areas. Taxpayers in cities with their own fire departments should not be forced to subsidize contract cities.
If passed, Measure D would directly impact countywide law enforcement, countywide criminal prosecutions and countywide jail operations in a negative way. On the other hand, there is no negative impact upon the firefighters should Measure D fail.
In other words, the OCFA only helps those cities too cheap to pay for their own fire departments (the "contract cities") - so why should Anaheim subsidize them? It's not like a fire that breaks out in the dense brush of the unincorporated foothills and canyons of eastern OC would ever threaten the rest of the county. Oh wait...
In the wake of Measure D's defeat, Jon Fleischmann of the Flash Report conducted a laudatory interview with former State Sen. John Lewis, who led the campaign against Measure D:
JF: Was there a turning point in the campaign?
JL: No, I don't think there was a seminal moment where we said "Aha, now we'll win". Instead there were a series of events that each contributed to our victory. For openers, the unanimity of the Board of Supervisors was key. If there had been a crack there it would have given fire a huge issue to exploit. The rapid fire endorsements we received from the Orange County Republican Party, California Republican Assembly, and State Senator Tom McClintock helped immensely with Republican voters. It is important to note that the Orange County Democrat Party stayed neutral on this race. Firefighters thought they had that endorsement in the bag. I know some of the Deputies and OCEA leaders were disappointed that the Dems didn't endorse against D, but we were ecstatic they stayed neutral. It showed we were out hustling them in every way.
It was around the time of gaining these great endorsements that Steve Greenhut from the Orange County Register did a great column and series of editorials on the greed of the OCFA union. He came up with some jaw dropping statistics that really turned public sentiment our way.
Also, I think our opponents late start signaled their over confidence, perhaps they gave too much weight to that early OCFA poll.
The wingnutroots also got involved. Matt Cunningham (aka "Jubal") and his "OC Blog" gave a great deal of attention to Measure D, leading the online war against adequate fire protection. Matt explained his opposition to Measure D in this post:
It is my belief that government employee unions pose the single greatest domestic threat to local liberty today. They are, as a wise man said, "government organized as a special interest." Government at all levels -- at least in California -- is increasingly under their thumb. When fear and money cause our state and local elected officials -- and the power of taxation -- to be more responsive to the demands of government workers than to taxpaying voters at large, a role reversal occurs and so-called public servants become the masters....
The Democratic Party long ago abased itself to the government employee unions. Republican Party in Orange County remains an institution dedicated to liberty and limited government. Lately, it has become active in fighting for those beliefs at the local level by supporting and opposing candidates for local, "non-partisan" office. it ought to extend that activism by opposing Measure D....
I, for one, have no desire to give the OCPFA any more money. Why feed the beast? It is already the most politically imperious of our local government employees unions, and displays an arrogant penchant for treating the taxpayers' money as its own.
Orange County's public employee unions already possess too much power, and I see no reason to change the status quo and direct even more public money to the most politically aggressive one.
The Republican Party of Orange County can do more to defend and eventually expand the realm of liberty here in OC by opposing Measure D, than by remaining on the sidelines. I hope the members of the OC GOP central committee believe likewise.
To Matt, as with Greenhut and the Register editorial board, the issue here wasn't about fire protection. No, it was about a full-scale attack on basic rights and liberties by an evil "salaried bureaucracy" trying to enrich itself unfairly and illegitimately.
To return to the LA Times article today, some are critical of Chip Prather and the OCFA for apparently driving away some of the volunteer firefighters that used to help staff county engines. Volunteers are definitely a necessary part of adequate fire protection. But they are no substitute for full-time, trained professionals who can rapidly respond to an outbreak of fire. The notion that volunteers, not trained experts, should be responsible for fire protection is an inherently conservative notion - "starve the beast" that is government and force everyone else to shoulder the burdens of social costs, without the financial or material resources to actually meet public needs effectively.
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. As Bloomberg reported this week, the 2007 fires revealed the growing role of private firefighters:
"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.
AIG this year expanded its Wildfire Protection Unit to 150 ZIP codes in California and Colorado, up from 14 when it was formed in 2005. The unit has had the busiest week since its inception as fires burned at least 719 square miles (1,861 square kilometers) from Santa Barbara to San Diego, destroying 1,342 homes and 34 businesses and causing at least seven deaths.
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.
And if you can't afford such coverage? Well, you're shit out of luck:
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.
Unless the conservative assault on public services and social protection from risk is halted and beaten back, that is California's future.