Where There's Smoke
The 2006 wildfire season is a record setter already. Between the start of the year and June 26, across the United States 55,163 fires charred 3.3 million acres. The same period in 2005 saw just 28,825 that burned 1.3 million acres.
June brought a series of blazes in California and the Southwest. One (pictured above) near Sedona, Ariz., burned thousands of acres and forced evacuations in Oak Creek Canyon. Flames had scorched 70,000 acres in New Mexico by June, including an out-of-control blaze burning 24,300 acres in Gila National Forest in the southwestern part of the state. A wildfire in Los Padres National Forest in Southern California singed 15,000 acres and a car wreck touched off a smaller burn in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in southeastern Utah.
The Southwest was left a tinderbox by drought due to absent snow and rain last winter-the November-to-March period was the driest since 1892 in New Mexico.
Fire-prone states also are suffering the effects of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Nevada, seven Army National Guard Chinook helicopters used to carry fire retardant or water were sent to Afghanistan in 2005. One was shot down, one was lost to a fire and the rest need significant repairs and won't be available this fire season. In Colorado, 11 of 12 National Guard helicopters used to fight wildfires were sent to Iraq. What's more, only 16 of the 46 heavy air tankers in the national firefighting fleet are serviceable this year.
The national debate about immigration also threatens the wildfire-fighting corps. The Agriculture Department's inspector general reported in March that contract firefighting firms used by the Forest Service regularly hire illegal immigrants. IG investigators' efforts to estimate the number of undocumented workers on Forest Service crews are spurring fears of a crackdown.
With Iraq unease on the rise, Pentagon leaders might re-examine U.S. military tactics. They could take tips from A Short Guide to Iraq, printed in 1942 for American troops heading to Southwest Asia. Our copy came from a secondhand shop courtesy of Jon Fox of our sister publication, Global Security Newswire. "Most Americans and Europeans who have gone to Iraq didn't like it at first," the handbook notes. "But nearly all . . . changed their minds after a few days or weeks, and largely on account of the Iraqi people ." The best way to prevent "Hitler's agents," or insurgents for that matter, "from getting in their dirty work" was by "getting along with the Iraqis and making them your friends." Here's how:
- "American success or failure in Iraq may well depend on whether the Iraqis . . . like American soldiers or not."
- "Do not touch or handle an Iraqi . . . Do not wrestle with him in fun, and don't slap him on the back."
- "You will have to get used to relieving yourself outdoors. . . . Get well off the main streets and well away from mosques. . . . You will have to carry your own toilet paper."
- "Moslems do not let other people see them naked . . . . Don't, under any circumstances, take a sun bath."
Enlisting The Private Sector
Uncle Sam should enable companies to play a bigger role in securing critical infrastructure. That's the thrust of "Neglected Defense: Mobilizing the Private Sector to Support Homeland Security," a cautionary March report from the Council on Foreign Relations. Authors Stephen E. Flynn and Daniel B. Prieto say the Bush administration's hands-off approach isn't working. Trusting market mechanisms to prompt companies to prepare abdicates government's security obligations, they argue.
They note the unevenness in preparation for attack among critical industries. Finance and information technology firms are well prepared for cyberattacks because they face threats of fraud and hacking every day and incursions can hurt their ability to generate profits. Commercial aviation and nuclear power also are making good progress on security, largely because they are heavily regulated by the government.
Chemical facilities, on the other hand, remain underprotected because they have not faced attacks, and improvements such as retrofitting are costly and not required.
Flynn and Prieto say the private sector has a weak and ineffective partner in the Homeland Security Department, which suffers from turnover and inadequate staffing. They propose actions including shoring up DHS, completing the priority list for protecting infrastructure, adding regulation and standards, providing tax incentives and ensuring sufficient post-attack supplies and capabilities.