Why don’t we throw more people and equipment at fires?

Cal Fire tanker drops flame retardant. Photo courtesy of Cal Fire.

The idea: We are Americans. More is better. Why can’t we have everything?  

The pros: Fire folks like to talk about “tools in the toolbox.” Who doesn’t want the biggest toolbox with the latest tools to tackle a dangerous and unpredictable job? Why use puny WWII-era prop planes when you can call up a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet patrolling the sky like a pterodactyl, dousing flames with nearly 19,000 gallons of retardant? Even when machines are grounded by wind, it’s reassuring to have them near.

The cons: Some wildfires are predictable, inviting crews to swarm over them, all-but stamping them out with their boots. Those polite fires don’t tend to be California fires. The infernos menacing Northern and Southern California are driven by powerful winds, typical for this time of year. Putting resources in front of those flames is dangerous and not always effective: Aircraft and machines and people in uniform may not stop a wind-driven fire until winds die down or rain falls. And paying for fleets of tankers, helicopters, bulldozers and crews to sit around waiting for the weather to change is breathtakingly expensive.

The odds: Pretty good. Maybe 7 out of 10. Already, California boasts one of the largest firefighting air forces in the world, featuring fire detection cameras, year-round fire engines, bulldozers, S-2T air tankers and Black Hawks for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain. Cal Fire is also retrofitting seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes to dump as much as 4,000 gallons of fame retardant. As noted, fire folks like a well-stocked toolbox and usually, Cal Fire gets what Cal Fire wants.