“The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.” — Revelation 8:7.
Last Sunday’s press conference at Coronado High School, backdropped by the surging Waldo Canyon fire, drew 10 TV trucks, dozens of print, radio and TV journalists, and at least eight elected officials. Some gave useful information (Springs Mayor Steve Bach, Manitou Mayor Marc Snyder), while others could have safely kept their mouths shut.
Still, the siren song of major TV face time is difficult to resist, especially in an election year. We heard from El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, County Commissioners Amy Lathen and Sallie Clark, and Congressman Doug Lamborn. Colorado Springs city councilmember Val Snider and Commissioner Peggy Littleton were present, but didn’t speak.
The common theme: everyone’s working together. In keeping with this sudden togetherness, the usual infighting was nowhere in evidence. Even Congressman Lamborn, who rarely misses an opportunity to take a potshot at his political foes, was subdued and statesmanlike.
Mayor Bach, who led the parade of speakers, noted correctly that the day of reckoning had finally come. For decades, local officials have planned for the inevitable — the marriage between fire and forest.
Global climate change is, like it or not, the wedding planner for this ill-omened union.
Remember the dire predictions made years ago by climate scientists, who tried to persuade western policymakers that higher temperatures, less rainfall, and diminished winter snowpack would bring quasi-permanent drought, more frequent and intense forest fires, and other inevitable changes to the region?
Three scenarios were presented — best, median and worst case. We’re not at the worst-case scenario — we’re where the worst-case scenarios predicted we’d be in 2030. We’re in unexplored territory.
You may argue that this is an anomalous year. It’s weather, not climate, right? That’s a familiar argument among climate-change deniers.
It’s no longer credible. You might as well argue that the Titanic never sank — after all, everyone knew she was unsinkable, right?
Sallie Clark praised the cooperation between officials at all levels, pointing out that plans for such an emergency had been in place for many years. That’s true — and although the parade of politicians became tiresome, it was comforting.
But — and it’s a large but — Colorado and the other states of the Mountain west are still woefully unprepared to fight the vast fires that devour hundreds of thousands of acres of forest every year.
As a story in the New York Times documented last week, the available fleet of large tanker planes has shrunk by 80 percent in the last 10 years. In 2002, the Forest Service could count on 44 such planes, all leased from various contractors. Today, there are nine.
All of these planes are at least 40 years old, and have been converted to their present use by private owners. They’re neither safe nor particularly effective. Since 1999, 63 pilots and crewmembers of these aerial fossils have died.
So why, in an annual defense budget of more than $600 billion, isn’t there enough to buy a new tanker fleet? We can’t blame our politicians. The fault lies with us.
We thought that catastrophic fires happened somewhere else. We never quite believed that one could actually threaten us. We didn’t believe that everything west of Interstate 25 might be evacuated, that neighborhoods would be incinerated, that our city might be wreathed in swirling, acrid smoke, that God and good luck might not protect us.
We thought we had dodged the bullet this time — until Tuesday evening’s nightmare.
Our world is not ending, just changing in unpleasant ways. We may not be able to stop forest fires from igniting, but we can do a better job of containment.
Why not buy a hundred tanker planes to fight fires in the West? Bombardier, a Canadian company, makes one that sells for about $35 million, far beyond the means of Forest Service contractors. Do the math — such a fleet would cost $3.5 billion, or 6/10ths of 1 percent of the defense budget.
We can fight fire; it’s not an abstract concept like “terrorism.” A war on forest fires makes sense, but only if we actually wage it.
As Carl von Clausewitz pointed out 200 years ago in Principles of War, “Defensive warfare does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen.”