The brave firefighters battling the dangerous and fast-moving fires in Northern California put their lives on the line to protect local communities from the historic flames recently seen in the region. But there’s now question as to how management is handling these fires and whether interagency infighting is slowing containment efforts.
A recent investigation from 60 Minutes found that bureaucracy and communication problems between the U.S. Forest Service, which manages wildfires on federal lands, and CalFire, which manages fires everywhere else in the state, has slowed containment efforts on recent fires. With fires growing so big that they are jointly managed by both organizations, frontline firefighters are seeing delayed responses that could impact suppression efforts.
Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy says with fires getting more extreme, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service can’t afford to sideline his fleet of night-flying choppers. “We’ve got to evolve,” says Fennessy. “We are standing… in a new world.” https://t.co/FCI3eL0MYA pic.twitter.com/iNwsXdDoAA— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) September 26, 2021
The centerpiece of the controversy from the report is nighttime air drops, which can prove to be dangerous in the midst of low visibility and smoke. But according to Orange County Fire Chief Brian Fennessy, the agencies had difficulty on agreeing on night-flying missions with the new military Chinook helicopters, retrofitted to drop water and retardant on fires even during the night.
Fennesy had been watching the fire operations on the Caldor Fire to see how his Chinook aircraft, which he had sent for support on the fire, were fairing. Much to his dismay, they were rarely conducting night missions to fight the flames.
During the 60 Minutes investigation, they witnessed decisions made by the USFS being changed by CalFire, which brings to question how the agencies work together to halt these dangerous fires in and near Northern California communities. The agencies disagreed on a multitude of issues including night missions and how to feed firefighters, among other things.
The main topic of dissension was the qualifications of firefighters flying the new Chinook aircraft, which to some, seems like a bureaucratic hurdle that only slows the firefighting missions. According to Fennessy, the aircraft didn’t see any action at night for days until he threatened to take them back to Southern California. Even after the Chinooks took flight, some think they were used too infrequently.
The firefighting aircraft have since been returned south to fight fires closer in proximity to their base, but the incident brings forward the discussion of how CalFire and the USFS should jointly manage these fires and eliminate bureaucratic nonsense in the face of saving lives and property.
It should be mentioned that the historic fires of Northern California are extremely hard to manage. Modern Americans have never seen fires this fast and devastating, and fighting something we’ve never seen with perfect precision is nearly impossible.
Here’s the full report from 60 Minutes: