Wednesday, July 7, 2010

When the Failure to Act Becomes Tragedy

There was an article in yesterday's L. A. Times (July 5) entitled 'Fire spotter says he was thwarted.' It described in agonizing detail the efforts of Capt. Perri Hall, a 'veteran air attack officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection,' who tried in vain to get air tankers in the air to drop water on the blaze which was at the time of his initial observation on Day 2 of last summer's Station Fire, 'a mere few acres.' Capt. Hall's account then goes on to sharply contradict the assertions by the Forest Service regarding their much-delayed response to the fire.

I read this article with great sadness, for this loss of forest could have been prevented. We all knew when we saw that ugly plume of smoke billowing from or beloved forest on Day 3 that something tactically was going horribly, catastrophically wrong. The lack of response by the Forest Service--with all of their foot-dragging and excuses--allowed this blaze, which could have been easily stopped with a minimum of effort, money, and manpower to develop into the biggest and most costly fire in Los Angeles history.

The 160,000 acres of National Forest that was burned and blamed on an arsonist should also be blamed on the very department sworn to protect it from harm. I see it as a monumental failure on the part of the Forest Service to serve the public, whose land it was, to allow it to be consumed in that agonizingly long, protracted, and devastating fire. Because of their bureaucratic boondoggle, fully two-thirds of the Angeles National Forest is now lost to us. All because some person or persons in the Forest Service declined to provide the air support that could have knocked this blaze down easily on Day 2.

And now I see eerie parallels to this tragedy in the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Again the response to this 'accident' was slow in coming. Hell, it is still slow in coming some 75 days later. And once again failure to own responsibility and the unwillingness to commit when there is a a crisis has caused an environmental disaster. There is seemingly no one in charge and has there has not been since day one. And the oil now oozes inland, without anyone or anything to stop it. Had the response been sooner and effectively coordinated, I doubt very seriously that they would be seeing tar balls in Florida, let alone Texas.

I find all of this inability to coordinate effective disaster responses greatly alarming. In my view it is symptomatic of the breakdown in our systems; we have allowed our governments and services to become so large and complex that we cannot do anything in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, whether it be a forest fire or oil spill, the first things to come out are the fingers, pointing at the other guy. Or there is a cry of 'lack of funds.' Or most appalling to me, one department refuses to cooperate with another. There is much talk about 'for the common good' in this country, yet sadly this does not apply to the much-needed coordinated response to fires and oil spills. The bureaucratic labyrinth that must be navigated to get anything done anymore is inexcusable. Like Nero, they fiddle while Rome burns--along with our forests.

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