James Conaway: the profession of firefighter


Photo by Pierre Menzel

Imagine if you want a respected producer of a small amount of fine wine in the mountains above Napa Valley who loves to mountain bike tough trails. His wife and wife’s modest home and basement under the towering Douglas fir trees have been threatened by forest fires on several occasions and may one day not survive.

And then a lawyer offers it to him in early 2021: Why not keep a small plane equipped with a water tank on the nearby Angwin airstrip? That way, when satellites detect smoke as they quickly do these days, the incipient fire could be extinguished in minutes, instead of hours.

What a great idea, say some people in the county.

What a terrible idea, Cal Fire said collectively. Why, people ask? Because it would disrupt Cal Fire’s established procedures.

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The winemaker finds allies in the county. The winemaker and his allies come up with a relatively inexpensive single-engine plane — ironically named, it turns out, the Fire Boss — that can dump water and then dive quickly over a lake to scavenge more. Cal Fire is being pressured to at least discuss the idea. There are discussions, zooms, real meetings.

The Vintner learns that there is one being held up in Tahoe that Cal Fire’s Chief of Aviation has said no to the Fire Boss. When asked why, he said he didn’t like Fire Bosses and walked out of the room.

The winemaker decides to start at the top and asks to speak to the manager of Cal Fire in Sacramento. To the winemaker’s surprise, the manager calls him back and says that Cal Fire doesn’t like single-engine planes. The winemaker reminds him that helicopters are single-engine. Well, helicopters are faster on the ground and more maneuverable.

They are also much more expensive to buy and fly, and buckets suspended from cables are inefficient and dangerous.

The director suggests that Cal Fire doesn’t really know how to integrate fixed-wing aircraft into firefighting. But federal agencies — the US Bureau of Land Management and the US Department of Forestry — know how to do it. Couldn’t Cal Fire learn from them?

He gets no definitive answer. So he calls a Cal Fire pilot he knows who will only speak anonymously because he fears being fired for speaking. The pilot says learning from other agencies would make Cal Fire look bad, a no-no.

The Cal Fire manager calls the winemaker back and says that Cal Fire will actually incorporate the Fire Boss into their program.

The winemaker and his allies now believe that perhaps we will sit on the ground in Angwin and allow a rapid response to the newly detected fires. They are wrong.

Cal Fire agrees to pay for the flight. But then someone calls from the manager’s office and says no, the deal is not on the table. Cal Fire senior management “are not convinced that any plane is good for the county” and Cal Fire’s director resigns.

The winemaker receives a call from the owner of several Blackhawk helicopters following what has become a public debate. “You got screwed,” he said. He adds that he owns Blackhawk helicopters and will rent one to ground sit at Angwin for $1.5 million a year.

Then Cal Fire says it won’t pay for helicopter operation for the first four hours of flight on a fire. So either the county or the donors will have to pay an extra $1.5 million each time.

It’s true. After four hours, a fire is detected, a special state fund, called E-Fund, comes into action. The budget of this fund is in no way capped. He’s not part of Cal Fire, which won’t have to pay anything out of its $2.1 billion base wildfire protection budget. In the same fiscal year, 2021-22, Cal Fire withdrew $1.9 billion from the fund.

The winemaker asks a friend, a volunteer firefighter in Colorado, what is going on. The friend questions his boss who does some research and then calls the winemaker directly. Yes, he said, that’s how the system works. Cal Fire doesn’t have to tighten its budget belt if it waits four hours before responding to a fire. Everyone seems to know, but no one can tell where the rule is written, it’s just “known”.

Now imagine further, if you will, what might have happened if all those fires had been put out quickly instead of four hours later. How many trees and hidden habitats destroyed by greed and bureaucratic incompetence? Are officials profiting from dollars poured in by a state sauce helicopter? Is there a version of this run across California, accumulating dead animals and possibly humans?

Nah, not possible. Is it?

James Conaway is a former Wallace Stegner Scholar at Stanford University and the author of 13 books, including “Napa at Last Light” and the New York Times bestseller, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden.”

Elisha A. Tilghman