Homeland Security: Fighting The California Fires

Wildfires continue to burn in southern California for the fifth straight day today, as at least half a million residents have been forced to flee their homes.

OCTOBER 25, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna,
Matt Corley, Ali Frick, and Jeremy Richmond
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Fighting The California Fires

Wildfires continue to burn in southern California for the fifth straight day today, as at least half a million residents have been forced to flee their homes. By Wednesday, the fires had burned at least 645 square miles, an area twice the size of New York City. Over 1,500 homes have already been destroyed, and officials estimate the cost of damage at $1 billion or more. The strong and unpredictable Santa Ana winds continue to fan the flames, though by yesterday afternoon the wind began to shift, giving Californians hope that the worst was over. On Wednesday, President Bush declared the fires a major disaster, which set in motion long-term federal aid, and today, he will visit California. San Diego fire chiefs said they had learned from the devastating fires of 2003. “The communication between different agencies has significantly improved,” Danny Mastro, division chief of the Coronado Fire Services Department, said. “Emergency operations were set up a lot more quickly.” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) also expressed confidence in his state’s response to the fires. “Trust me when I tell you — [if] you are looking for mistakes and you won’t find it,” he said. “It’s good news. Trust me.”

KATRINA’S LESSONS LEARNED: Indeed, state and federal officials deserve credit for their efforts combating the fires and keeping injuries to a minimum. In San Diego county, local officials placed more than 200,000 reverse 911 calls to residents, urging them to evacuate their homes. California’s “state and local coordination, communication and planning for fires and other events are well advanced, built on decades of experience.” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino pointed to the swift evacuation order as one of the “lessons learned” after Hurricane Katrina. “There’s increased coordination and communication and earlier communication and coordination between the federal, state and local governments,” she said. “We have learned those lessons and those lessons are being applied.” Thousands of Californians who took refuge at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium had an experience far different from refugees who fled to New Orleans’ Superdome in the wake of Katrina. Californians were greeted there by clean cots, tents, pillows, and blankets. “Volunteers offered massage therapy, yoga, kosher food, and art projects for kids,” and others arrived in clown suits to entertain the children. “We have the luxury of being able to count on our neighbors,” San Diego Mayor Gerald Robert Sanders said. “The folks in New Orleans didn’t have that luxury, because everybody was impacted.”

WAR STRETCHES DISASTER RESOURCES: Despite the proactive and immediate response by the local officials, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to eat up resources and thus limit disaster response efforts. “Right now, we are down 50 percent in terms of our National Guard equipment because they’re all in Iraq, the equipment, half of the equipment,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said. “What we really need are those firefighters, we need the equipment, we need, frankly, we need those troops back from Iraq,” said Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D). California was forced to pull 200 guard members from the Mexico border and deploy state prison inmates to fight the fires. This is not the first time that the war in Iraq has diverted resources from natural disasters at home. Last May, when tornadoes slammed into Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) said that National Guard’s response was made “much slower” because so much of its force was deployed to Iraq. “I have said for nearly two years, and will continue to say, that we have a looming crisis on our hands when it comes to National Guard equipment in Iraq and our needs here at home,” she said. A January report by the Government Accountability Office reported that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drained stateside resources for the National Guard, possibly hampering its ability to react effectively to a natural disaster.

THE RIGHT POINTS FINGERS: The right wing spent this week looking for people to blame for the forest fires. Fox News pointed the finger at al Qaeda terrorists. CNN’s right-wing pundit Glenn Beck said the fires were hitting some “people who hate America” and later blamed the fires on the “damn environmentalists” and their “bad environmental policies.” Michelle Malkin, a leading conservative blogger, echoed the complaint, pointing to “litigious environmentalists” for “standing in the way” of Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative. In fact, environmentalists don’t oppose removing brush and trees that serve as tinder in wildfires, but the so-called Healthy Forest Initiative was more concerned with giving logging companies free reign over forests than enacting sensible forest-fire prevention. Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, derided the supposition that global warming has played a role in the wildfires, mocking it as something “alarmists are talking about.” But as Center for American Progress’s Daniel J. Weiss points out, “massive, destructive wildfires could occur even more frequently and with greater ferocity due to global warming. Earlier this year, the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that ‘a warming climate encourages wildfires through a long summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster spread.'” 


IRAQ — BLACKWATER URGES SUPPORTERS TO ‘INFLUENCE’ CONGRESS WITH MISLEADING SPIN: In the past few weeks, Erik Prince, CEO of embattled private security firm Blackwater USA, has orchestrated an aggressive public relations campaign in efforts to save his company’s reputation in the face of multiple scandals, giving interviews to The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, CBS News, and PBS, amongst others. Yesterday, Blackwater sent an e-mail blast to supporters, encouraging them to contact “elected Congressional representatives” with “letters, e-mails and calls” with the goal of “influencing the manner in which they gather and present information.” Blackwater “suggested themes” for supporters to follow, such as “Cost efficiency of Blackwater — saving the US taxpayer millions of dollars.” But Blackwater’s cost-saving claims are specious at best. In fact, “[i]t costs the U.S. government a lot more to hire contract employees as security guards in Iraq than to use American troops.” The average Blackwater employee makes more on a per-day basis than Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. 

CONGRESS — SENATE BILL WOULD INCREASE RESOURCES FOR CORRUPTION INVESTIGATIONS: Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will review a bill introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) that would stiffen anti-corruption laws and finance federal investigations into public corruption. The legislation would “[pump] an additional $100 million into corruption investigations and prosecutions over the next four years” and would also extend the statute of limitations on the amount of time that investigators are permitted to investigate acts of public corruption. The bill follows a string of high-profile corruption investigations among federal officials, including one investigation into Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) that has suffered from a lack of funds and manpower. Leahy outlined the importance of the bill: “If we are serious about addressing the kinds of egregious misconduct that we have recently witnessed in high-profile public corruption cases, Congress must enact meaningful legislation to give investigators and prosecutors the tools and resources they need to enforce our laws.” Similar legislation recently gained support in the House, and advocates are attempting bring the legislation to a full vote.

ADMINISTRATION — WHITE HOUSE ‘NOT WORRIED’ ABOUT $2 TRILLION IRAQ WAR: The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported yesterday that “total spending for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and other activities related to the war on terrorism would amount to between $1.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion for fiscal years 2001 through 2017.” With $705 billion in interest, the cost of the wars could amount to $2.4 trillion — with $1.9 trillion in Iraq. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino attacked the report as “a ton of speculation.” “It’s a hypothetical. … What I can tell you is I’m not worried about the number,” she said. The CBO’s projection is not “pure speculation.” In fact, the report considers a range of predictions about the U.S. military presence in Iraq, consistent with the administration’s desire for a Korea-like, “enduring” occupation of Iraq. “[I]t’s clear under analysis that the nation is on an unstable fiscal path,” CBO Director Peter Orszag told Congress yesterday. The “higher debt and interest costs, is going to cause severe economic dislocation, which are exacerbated by war costs.” Orszag also said yesterday that the real costs of the war could be higher than anticipated.


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will announce “new sanctions against Iran” today that “accuse” the Quds division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps of supporting terrorism and “the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps of proliferating weapons of mass destruction.”

The Washington Post reports that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) “has become the Bush administration’s worst nightmare: a Democrat in the majority with subpoena power and the inclination to overturn rocks.” Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to testify before his committee.

“President Bush embarks this morning on a tour of the wildfires ravaging California to showcase his administration’s ability to respond better to natural disasters than it did after Hurricane Katrina two years ago.”

In a letter to Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey yesterday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined with his Democratic colleagues “in questioning the basis for” Mukasey’s assertion that the president “can act outside the law” on national security issues.

After yesterday denying that it “watered down” congressional testimony by the head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Bush administration officials are now acknowledging that “they heavily edited [her] testimony on global warming.” For example, officials took out the line: “CDC considers climate change a serious public concern.”

“The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday began offering tens of thousands of dollars in payments to victims and families of victims of the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad involving security guards from the firm Blackwater.” Several family members turned down the compensation, saying they still wanted “to sue Blackwater in an American court.”

Secretary Rice acknowledged that the administration may have mishandled the case of Maher Arar. “We do not think that this case was handled as it should have been. We do absolutely not wish to transfer anyone to any place in which they might be tortured,” she said.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and William Delahunt (D-MA) will soon introduce legislation — the “American Anti-Torture Act of 2007” — to “ban torture of detainees by any U.S. government agency, including the CIA or other intelligence units.”

And finally: “Sen. Larry Craig is still traveling back to his home state of Idaho these days. … But one thing about his travel plans is different since his widely publicized arrest. … [H]e’s now connecting through the Denver airport. He’s apparently had enough embarrassment in Minneapolis to last a lifetime.”

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“I can tell you unequivocally that the ongoing war-fighting activities…have had no negative effect at all (on) our ability to provide sufficient forces to assist civilian authorities in fighting the wildfires.”
— Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale, 10/24/07


“Right now we are down 50 percent in terms of our National Guard equipment because they’re all in Iraq. The equipment — half of the equipment, so we really will need help.”
— Sen. Barbara Boxer, 10/23/07

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