California’s Wildfires: Lessons Learned?

This morning, as California’s wildfires continued to burn, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared that the feds had learned many lessons from Hurricane Katrina.

Maybe.

By nearly all accounts, the fires have been extraordinarily well managed (400,000 plus acres have been torched, nearly a million people have been evacuated, but only a handful of deaths are fire-related).

But I’m not sure Chertoff and other federal officials deserve as much credit as they are giving themselves. Two other factors are worth considering:

1. The fires.

Megafires in California are, by nature, high damage/ high likelihood events. The 2nd worst fire in state history –after this one — occurred just 4 years ago. From a preparedness standpoint, this combination of impact and probability is as good as it gets: Fires occur often enough to make investing in prevention and reponse politically attractive for federal, state, and local officials. And they are familiar enough to make agency planning efforts both useful and continuous. (By contrast, high damage/lower likelihood events like Cat 5 hurricanes and WMD terrorist attacks are scary to imagine, outside our immediate experience base, and politically unattractive to prepare for precisely because they are unlikely).

Lessons may have been learned in Washington after Katrina. But they are learned here in California every fire season. Since the 2003 Cedar fire, state and local officials have substantially improved radio interoperability among first responders, adopted a “reverse 911” phone system which was used to evacuate San Diego county, and developed a new modified DC-10 that can drop 12,000 gallons of firefighting chemicals from the sky — that’s roughly ten times more than the next best aircraft.

2. State/County/Local Efforts (or, everything outside of Washington)

Good coordination between different agencies on the firelines is no accident. The incident response system that is now used nation-wide to handle major disasters was invented in California years ago. California’s city, county, and state agencies are playing by the playbook they designed. And they are working across agency (and sector) lines with the people they’ve fought alongside for years. Teams that play often together usually do better.

Don’t get me wrong. The devastation is massive. I’ m sure we’ll learn how things could have been done better. And federal coordination and assistance are critical. But lesson #1 from Katrina should be that local capabilities matter. A lot.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.