When the predicted Santa Ana winds kicked up and wildfires broke out on cue across crackling-dry Southern California, some military helicopters capable of dropping water on the spreading flames remained grounded. Frustrated officials were quick to cite bureaucratic snares, claiming that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection wouldn't let the craft take off without its own personnel, who were still being mobilized.
As the flames advance, it's easy to criticize a prudent safety measure that, if waived, could have saved a few minutes and perhaps some homes, or a response procedure that, rejiggered, might have put equipment in the air sooner. It takes a little more distance to recognize the planning and precision that brought personnel and equipment from across the state, and in many cases the nation, to the front lines of the fires in record time.
Anger about the official response is, for the most part, misplaced. County, state and federal responses to the disaster were swift and should not be criticized because of past decisions that some politicians or voters now regret or for which they would rather decline responsibility. In San Diego County, for example, does it make sense not to pay for a full-time, professional fire department? Should elected officials who complained a couple of months ago that California spends too much now argue that the state should have spent more, and more quickly, to buy more than 19 of the officially recommended 150 new firetrucks?
When the brush ignites, it's too late to prepare. Officials, front-line responders and residents can be fairly judged for what they did with the resources they had. San Diego County's reverse 911 system helped get people out of threatened homes with warning telephone calls. County and local websites instantaneously mapped threatened areas and marked evacuation routes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recognized the importance of being on the spot, shuttling among the fires and coordinating responses to quickly clear bureaucratic red tape. President Bush, too, learned from Hurricane Katrina and mobilized federal resources quickly.
The latest disasters also will teach officials how to plan better for the next time. But the fact that there are still more lessons to learn does not diminish the extraordinary firefighting, rescue and coordinating efforts displayed in Southern California during the last week.