Super-Sized Roll of the Dice

Things could get hot in California this summer.  Really hot. 

Cal Fire, also known as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has announced that it will no longer pay for the services of one of the most effective weapons available for battling wildfires: A massive DC 10 supertanker that’s been retrofitted to carry up to 12,000 gallons of fire retardant.

Included in the deal was a second DC 10 that acts as a backup.  One supertanker and another on standby for the 120-day season at a cost of $7 million. 

So how valuable are these supertankers? 

Think of it in military terms. The best way to “soften” up a target on the ground is to hit it from the air. Do what can be done from above before, or at least at the same time as the “boots on the ground”.

Rick Hatton, the CEO of the company that owns the aircraft calls the move penny wise and pound-foolish. 

He’s got a good point. 

In the face of a fast-spreading wildfire near a populated area, 12,000 gallons of retardant deployed in a single drop could mean the difference between saving a neighborhood and driveways that lead to heaps of burning ashes. 

Hard to match that kind of effectiveness with smaller tankers and helicopters with Bambi buckets.

The decision comes at a time when cities like San Jose have announced the “browning out” of two fire engines each day.  They’ve already laid off 49 firefighters and you can bet that in that city of a million people there will be delays in response time.

San Diego, however has just ended a 17-month policy that kept 8 fire engines out of the mix each day. 

Officials recognized the value of a full compliment of engines when a toddler choked to death in July of 2010.  Response times had slowed due to the brownouts. 

Could the toddler have been saved if a response had come sooner?

The decision not to renew the contract for the supertankers is a calculated risk by the state. 

Is $7 million over 120 days worth the expense? 

If you’re someone who’s lived through a wildfire, lost a home to a wildfire or fought a wildfire the answer is yes.

But if you’re in charge of scratching out the check things are different.  Facing a budget crisis and no guarantee of an excessively dry, hot season, the decision is clearly a roll of the dice. 

Let’s just hope this season the dice don’t come up “snake eyes.”

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