California wildfire discussed briefly during White House press briefing

A reporter asked if there were enough fire resources available

The Caldor Fire southwest Lake Tahoe in California and the availability of firefighting resources were very briefly discussed at the White House press briefing Monday afternoon. The video above should be queued up to where the topic began at 1:07:13.

In response to a reporter asking if there were enough fire resources, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “Well, that is our objective. We will continue to assess if additional resources are needed and again I would note that when the President came in he looked at the impact of wildfires and the fact that in the past there have been cases where we didn’t have the resources needed and he wanted to preemptively take steps to prepare for that, to make sure we had those resources as we went into fire season.”


It is unclear to me what steps were taken that made a big difference in the availability of firefighting resources during this Western fire season. However the President did apply pressure to help make all eight military Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS) available that can convert a C-130 into an air tanker. At the time only five were working and the Air Force apparently had difficulty staffing the MAFFS operation with trained and qualified flight and support crews.

And 200 soldiers are being trained now to serve as hand crews. But that does not make up for the fact that Pew Charitable Trusts reported in July the Forest Service’s California Region had not filled 725 of the planned 4,620 fire positions, illustrating a serious problem with retention and recruitment.

There are still only 18 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, and many of them are working on absurd one-year contracts. On May 17, 2021 Fire Aviation was told by a spokesperson for the US Forest Service that this year they would have 34 large air tankers (LATs) if needed — 18 on Exclusive Use Contracts guaranteed to work, 8 “surge” LATs guaranteed to work for a shorter period of time, and another 8 on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts. Of those 16 surge and CWN aircraft, only 5 could be produced.

COVID has had an effect on the number of federal firefighters available. We asked the five federal land management agencies for the number of firefighters that have tested positive for COVID or had to quarantine after exposure. 1All five refused to release any information on the topic and would not explain their reasoning for keeping it secret. This is ridiculous for organizations that say they care about the health and safety of their employees who have a right to know the severity of the additional risks they are taking on while in a job already recognized as being hazardous.

It tends to indicate that a pandemic can be politicized to the point where the Park Service, Forest Service, BIA, BLM, and FWS will not even discuss to what degree it is degrading their fire preparedness, if at all. What is next? Refusing to acknowledge injuries and fatalities caused by vehicle accidents and hazardous trees?

In the 12-step program for AA, the first is important, admitting to yourself and others that you have a problem. I’ll very loosely paraphrase it, bending it just a bit for this situation: “We admitted we were powerless over [confessing to problems with COVID, recruitment, and retention] and that our [fires] had become unmanageable.”

The act of keeping it secret leads one to believe it is a very serious issue. Welcome to 2021.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center recently issued information about six examples of COVID exposure on fires. Here is a portion of one about a hotshot crew that was affected in July, 2021, when 18 of them were exposed to a crewmember who tested positive. Two crewmembers left the fire early and were not exposed:

Of the 18 crewmembers who returned from assignment on June 22nd, 3 were fully vaccinated and returned to work on June 25th. The remaining employees (15) have not returned to work; the sick employee was put into isolation and the remaining close contacts on the crew were told to self-quarantine for 14-days by unit leaders. The 2 crewmembers who returned early (1 vaccinated) were not impacted. None of the vaccinated employees got sick while 6 of the unvaccinated employees have tested positive.

(If you would like to leave a comment about this topic, great — as long as it is on the topic of wildfire management, and does not veer into politics or personal attacks. Offending comments will be removed, as stated in our policy, or comments will be turned off.)

1Wildfire Today asked the National Interagency Fire Center several questions last week about the availability of resources, working through Candice Stevenson of the National Park Service whose turn it was last week to serve as PIO for NIFC. Generally, clear answers were avoided or not given, including one about the effects of COVID on the firefighting force. When I asked for more information Ms. Stevenson offered to ask each of the five agencies for the numbers of firefighters affected by COVID. I accepted the offer. She responded much more quickly than expected, saying, “I received notification from DOI and USFS and they are declining to provide further input.” I asked her by email on August 27 what the reason was for them not making the information available. There was no reply.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

7 thoughts on “California wildfire discussed briefly during White House press briefing”

  1. At least on the Caldor fire, there have been more air tankers available than were able to fly due to wind and smoke conditions. On the River fire a little earlier in the month, the first day of the fire, they were able to do continuous retardant drops, just allowing enough time between planes to avoid turbulence problems.

  2. I was asked a similar question yesterday by a national news reporter: “. . . we’re trying to look at whether emergency response capabilities across the country are getting stretched trying to respond to simultaneous things like big wildfires and hurricanes. I’m kind of convinced that our overall governance model is not really suited for modern times anymore, but wondering if you have any more specific thoughts with regard to our human response to wildfires.”

    Here’s my response:

    In a nutshell, we’ve got more stuff in the way of storms, fires, and floods than ever before. That’s because there are more of us than ever before. With more stuff in the way, there will be more damage.

    As to whether the damaging agent is more intense or more frequent, and, if so, the cause of the increased frequency/intensity, that varies depending upon the damaging agent.

    For example, consider earthquakes. Today’s earthquakes are more damaging than 100 years ago. Why? Not because the earth trembles more intensely, but because we have more built stuff available to fall over when it does. However, today’s earthquakes are LESS damaging in places where we have designed our stuff to withstand trembling, e.g., Tokyo, notwithstanding more built stuff.

    Consider volcanoes. Oops. On second thought, don’t consider volcanoes. There’s not much we can do about designing stuff to withstand Mt. St. Helens-type explosions. Just stay out of the way [mildly edited to remove my original expletives].

    Hurricanes? Meh. Climate jury is still out on whether they are more or less frequent, or more or less intense, and where they are more or less of one or the other. But there’s no question that they are more damaging because we’ve put more stuff in the way. OTOH, where we properly design and maintain engineered water systems (New Orleans) to handle storm surges and the like, hurricanes are less damaging. Where we don’t (Bangladesh), they are more damaging.

    And then there are wildfires, which, because it is summer burn season in western North America, are on my provincial media’s radar (it’s winter in Australia so no one cares about fires now, but wait six months and Australia’s media will rediscover that fires happen).

    Just like earthquakes, floods, and storms, the effects fire has on the human environment depend on how we engineer our environment — NOT on our “emergency response” capability. When the drought hits and the wind blows an ignition, it doesn’t matter how many firefighters are deployed — they won’t stop it. And when the wind doesn’t blow, anyone with a bucket of water and a shovel can stop it, i.e., most ignitions (98%) have trivial outcomes. But, those that don’t (2%) are unstoppable, e.g., the Caldor Fire that has reached the front step of South Lake Tahoe NOTWITHSTANDING every firefighting asset that the world’s richest country in its richest state can throw at it.

    A post mortem of the Caldor Fire will show that Firewise-engineered and maintained homes survived overwhelmingly (like COVID-19 vaccinated people do). The saving grace for S. Lake Tahoe is that it has few mobile and manufactured homes because . . . wealth. Tin can dwellings take it in the shorts when it comes to fire, e.g., Paradise, CA, where half the housing stock was tin cans.

  3. FF Friend told me that they are staying hush hush on the covid tracing and all that BS because otherwise there would be no firefighters at all able to work. Who cares anyway because most of these people are a lot more worried about dying in an actual fire than some virus with a high survival rate for folks that are physically fit enough to battle forest fires.

  4. I believe the main point that needs to be driven home is the positions within each government entity that are left unfilled. I love the idea of the soldiers being trained dont get me wrong, but those 200 people aren’t quite the same as 200 firefighters that have been doing this for numerous years or even 1 long season like this. It’s across the board, staffing shortages within each agency, make it known! Not just how people are you short, those numbers can be fluffed with contractors and volunteers (No offense to these individuals at all, this is an agency shortage gripe), but let’s dive deep like so many have asked. Numbers don’t lie, we within each agency need more help to keep experienced folks around!

  5. Well, you can try the Office of Wildland Fire in Boise to pin down the DOI folks on the COVID question. The number is 208-334-1560. Followed by inquiries to Congressional staffers ought to generate some movement, though DOI may be easier to budge than the FS bureaucracy. You’d think they could at least cite a law or policy which supports nondisclosure of information as simple as number of affected employees.


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