Fires Now and Then and Thoughts on FEMA

Editor’s Note: the current fire situation in Los Angeles is not a new phenomenon; the “Santa Ana Winds” often bring fires to the area. We dug around in the archives and found this post from October 2007. There are discussions of the fire, fire response, comparisons with Katrina, and a ‘report’ (Jerry’s term for his analysis of a subject) on FEMA.

Regarding the current fire in Southern California, Jerry’s son Alex reports: “Chaos Manor and my own house are safe, and we are now allowed back in to my development. I plan to check on it later today. Thank you for all the concern and inquiries. Our friends and family are fine. My (Alex’s) neighbors weren’t all as lucky, as several houses burned down.”

Southern California is ringed with fire. There are no problems near us, and our roof is fireproofed, but no place in Los Angeles is entirely safe. The brush stops 100 yards from our house — we are on the flats in Studio City, but Laurel Terrace is the edge of the hills, and 100 yards from us begins 50 square miles of nature conservancy part — meaning scrub brush and chaparral penetrated by a fire road but without water supplies. That last burned off about 20 years ago so there is plenty of fuel up there.

All is well at Chaos Manor but we are watching, especially when the winds pick up.

Tuesday,  October 23, 2007

The fires continue.
117.669067&spn=2.085959,5.50415&source=embed .

A report from the Arrowhead area:

The first looters they had up the hill were two guys in a white pickup truck with Nevada plates. They saw – and lost – a pickup with what was described as

“15 hispanic males in the back of a truck getting ready to loot at golden rule and manatoba” and “Fullsized pickup truck to 10 to 15 hispanic males in the bed of the truck; 173 was clear from the dam to manatoba.”

These are volunteers dealing with this. There aren’t enough CHP’s to enforce the road closures which is leading to this.

I have no estimate of the reliability of this report; I have not heard it on the news, but then I wouldn’t expect to.

I posted this in another conference:

When I was a lad in Tennessee, my father was a Colonel of the Tennessee
Volunteer Militia (unorganized). What this was you can guess: Minutemen,
with state commissions and a chain of command but little else, but since in
rural Tennessee everyone was armed this was no problem. IN case of floods or
tornadoes the volunteer militia would protect property against looters.  I
do not think we have any such things now, in part because the governments no
longer trust the citizens — or at least not all the citizens, and equality
is thought to be far more important that public safety.  Disarm the citizens
and rely on the professionals…

The Kentucky and Tennessee Colonels are usually the butts of national jokes, but they served a real purpose when I was young.

Several news crews report having to run for their lives. The fires can move fast.

Now for the good news:

Chaos Manor is unaffected. I have buttoned up the house and turned on AC and air purifiers for obvious reasons. The pool is filled with wind-blown debris but that’s not unusual in Santa Ana conditions. Looking from my balcony I can see neither smoke nor fire in any direction.

The San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood Hills have no fires. One hopes there is some vigilance because there are those who enjoy fire crises and take opportunities like these to set more fires.

The meteorologists report that the Santa Ana conditions are slowly weakening, and the Devil Winds will be pretty well gone by tomorrow. After that there may even be rain.

Rain, of course, is the ultimate remedy to all this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It’s much calmer here this morning. California fire department officials are confident. Which means the hysteria will start, and the blame game will begin. Not enough airplanes, FEMA wasn’t here, George Bush didn’t personally come down an urinate on one of the fires. It’s all Washington’s fault, and it was all caused by global warming. It’s all the fault of having a First World Civilization, which pollutes and warms and burns. But we’ll fix that with No Child Left Behind, which will see to it that there aren’t enough educated people to sustain a first world civilization.

Thursday,  October 25, 2007


The fires are out in Los Angeles County, although they remain in Orange, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. Once the LA County FD Hotshots get rested up they can go put out the other fires. LA County invested a lot of money in County fire resources, more than the other three counties put together, so it’s hardly astonishing that we were able to control our fires before the others.

One reader comments

Katrina and gunfire at helicopters

One other thing you don’t have in the California fire disaster: people sitting on roofs, slowly dehydrating while National Guard choppers flutter by, ignoring their waving and flares.

My wife was a nurse at University Hospital.  After three days without power, water pressure or sewerage, only one half-hearted attempt was made to supply them by air.  That pilot must not have had any experience at vertical replenishment, because he dropped his palletload of bottled water fifteen feet to the roof (the hospital’s helipad was across the street, under water).  Almost all of the bottles burst.

If curses had any real force, whoever decided to put the hospital’s emergency generator in the basement, along with the pharmacy, the cafeteria and central supply, died of several horrible diseases at once.

When they finally got my wife out, two days after the fumbled water drop, she was told that planes were departing for San Antonio and Shreveport.  She knew that I was waiting in Shreveport, because we’d got a few text messages through what was left of the local cellphone net.  She made the mistake of mentioning that, so guess which plane they put her on.

I’m glad that the FEMA response to the wildfires isn’t the Chinese fire drill that we saw in New Orleans, but Jimmy Carter’s mistake still stands, so I’m sure you will see your share of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance.

BTW: Recent forecasts are that the next sunspot cycle will be the quietest since the Maunder Minimum that coincided with, and probably caused, the Little Ice Age.  How much would you like to bet that by 2017 we will see governments offering tax incentives to burn _more_ carbon?

I can only point out that Los Angeles County has worked at organizing for disasters, and although we don’t have a full Civil Defense organization as we should, we have a considerably better organization structure than many.

Friday, October 26, 2007

At first there appear to be parallels between Qualcomm Stadium and the Superdome story; but in fact there aren’t many. In the Southern California evacuations, they were evacuating to a secure and safe place with electricity. The telephones worked. The road grid worked. In the whole county fewer than a dozen main roads were closed. There were gas stations open, grocery stores open, clean water in all the taps. Most of the people who evacuated didn’t need shelter: they had friends or went to motels. Moreover, once they were out of the fire area, the worst they faced was a night in their cars. The fires didn’t chase them and there were no floods.

I will say that California is better governed and has a more civil tradition than New Orleans. The areas people were evacuated from were safe, unlike much of New Orleans long before the flood. And while we have a few corrupt cops, I cannot imagine a team of four LAPD detectives systematically looting a Wal-Mart even when cameras are rolling…

Saturday, Oct 28, 2007

Department of Hopeless Security, FEMA branch.

We’ve all seen the preposterous “Press Conference” in which FEMA employees — bureaucrats, cubicle workers — stood in for reporters to ask questions. The excuse was that there wasn’t time to get a proper press conference organized, and this was a way to get the information out without simply having a bunch of press releases. One can see how that might make sense — to public information bureaucrats in FEMA. “Mister Secretary, are you pleased with the performance of your people?”

Oh, Yeah.

One more reason why FEMA ought to be abolished entirely. Its political charity work — bailing out people who did not have insurance — can be taken over by whatever the Department of Welfare is called now, or parceled out between Urban Development and Interior. The actual emergency preparedness and response activity should devolve onto a reanimated Civil Defense structure. Actually, Civil Defense should be headed by an Army Undersecretary, although a DOD Undersecretary would do. The point is that Civil Defense is mostly preparation and coordination, with the major efforts being local, county, state. The central organization can have some central resources to parcel out at need, but local government ought not count on Washington to put out its fires and clean up after hurricanes. That’s not the point of the Federal Government.

Civil Defense takes time to set up, and there’s always a danger of bureaucratization: one reason why Civil Defense needs to be largely in the hands of volunteers, not “professionals”.  As an example, the problem of allocation of Marine helicopters to be used in fire fighting.

There are plenty of helicopters at Camp Pendleton, and there were fires around (later in) the Camp Pendleton area. Do you simply tell a Marine chopper pilot “Hello, there’s a fire, go put it out?” Do you include fire outputting in the normal training of a military chopper pilot? The result of putting aircraft with good pilots not trained in this kind of work into a fire zone doesn’t have to be imagined. There’s plenty of experience: air collisions, fire retardant dropped in the wrong places, confusion over where to reload the helicopter, air traffic control in confined areas, etc. It may be that lack of a helicopter over a certain area results in the loss of a million dollar home; but the remedy is not to send in untrained pilots in hopes that the home can be saved without mishap. The remedy is to put a firefighter manager into the helicopter with the pilot.

Now who is the manager? Should the State have a bunch of them, trained, on standby ready to go in there when there are fires, and otherwise doing nothing? That can be expensive, and fast. Who are these people? Who pays their salaries while they are on duty? Who pays them when there are no fires? What do they do in the eleven months of the year when California isn’t burning?

This is in part pure speculation. I don’t know a lot about fire fighting, but I do know enough to ask those questions; apparently these questions haven’t suggested themselves to John and Ken and our local radio and newspaper reporters, who are howling about the State regulation that requires trained spotters to be in firefighting helicopters not piloted by regular firefighters. The spotters — managers, actually — should, they say, have been instantly available, sitting in helicopters waiting for any possible break in the high winds that grounded most of the aerial firefighting resources during the first two days of the fires. Which is fine, if there were lots of trained managers with nothing else to do.

A proper Civil Defense organization looks into such matters, sets up reserve corps of volunteers who get paid for time spent in training and are called into service at need: not just firefighting managers, but logistics people, medical administrators, traffic managers and air traffic controllers. A proper Civil Defense organization looks into the local community resources and organizes them for use when Comes The Day. Most communities have a lot of resources that can be employed in emergencies, but the time to learn what to do is not just after the earthquake or while the fires are raging.

It’s not so much that FEMA is incompetent as that competence is not possible. You simply cannot have a central organization that “manages” local emergencies. You can provide resources and encouragement for local citizen groups to set up and train Civil Defense teams. Huge assets like aircraft carriers with nuclear electric power generators, hospital ships, high speed logistic ships may be “managed” centrally — indeed have to be, since no community can afford such things — but the response time is going to be slow. It has to be.

In New Orleans, a proper Civil Defense organization would have had someone whose job it was to manage the transportation resources — including all those school busses that sat unused until they were inundated by the floods. It would have a Civil Defense unit whose job it is to provide communications. (In California my son Alex is part of a California Emergency Services organization that does just that.) It would have — but that’s the point, isn’t it?  Planning for the local emergency, assessing the community resources, and setting up an emergency management structure is precisely the point, and it needs to be done community at a time.

Set up proper Civil Defense and there won’t be a need for phony press conferences to tell the world how good you are.

We used to have real Civil Defense until Jimmy Carter in his infinite wisdom decided we didn’t need it any longer. After all, it was DEFENSE and that provoked the Soviet Union. If the US prepares for disasters including war, then it must be planning to have wars.  So Jimmy got his Peace Prize. And we got FEMA.


Comments are enabled for this remembrance. Please keep your comments polite and thoughtful. Use the Well-Wishing page for thoughts not related to this remembrance. – The Editor

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9 Responses to Fires Now and Then and Thoughts on FEMA

  1. Laura Dolly says:

    Thank you for this. I am a relative newcomer to “Chaos Manor” and was greatly saddened by Jerry’s passing. It has been exciting to see the notifications in my inbox again.

  2. brian adams says:

    Thank you for including me in these gems from Dr.Pournelle. I was serving in the USARMY when Carter went in office. You could actually feel the pervasive negativity overtake the Army under his tenure as leader of The Free World. Carter made it embarrassing to be from Georgia.

  3. Bud Pritchard says:

    Love coming back to Jerry’s commentary. The post was ten years ago and applies even today. Thanks. Please continue.

  4. Walter Moore says:

    Thank you for doing this, it’s great to receive these in my email. I hope you continue this.

  5. Clayton Shackelford says:

    Thank you so much for the updates and the reminder of perspective.

  6. Mike Flynn says:

    Thank you for the safety report. Glad to hear that you, Roberta, and Chaos Manor are safe.

  7. Mel Ray Nottage says:

    Our greatest thanks for keeping Dr. Pournelle’s thoughts alive. This site has been for me the only place on the entire Internet where one can find intelligent thought.

  8. Leo Haas says:

    I also want to thank you for continuing to “recycle” and add to Jerry’s old posts. I only found out about “Chaos Manor” in the last two years and really looked forward to his messages. We will miss him.

  9. Steve Hughes says:

    I am glad that you are reposting Jerry’s thoughts. They are timeless. Thank You!

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