San Diego is not immune to the kinds of fires that have devastated Arizona and Colorado. Richard Hawkins, the chief of fire aviation management for the Cleveland National Forest, believes the potential exists here for similarly disastrous fires. "San Diego County has about half of California's ten worst fire scenarios."
The situation is so bad that San Diego is at the maximum level of fire preparedness, level 5. "Actually, it's the whole nation that's at level 5, and it's unprecedented. We went to preparedness level 5 in June. This doesn't happen every year, but recently it's been happening almost every year. We bring in the U.S. military to assist, and even international helpers. For example, two years ago in Idaho and Montana, we went to national preparedness level 5 and brought in Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian management teams because there were so many fires. We also brought in thousands of U.S. Army personnel to assist."
The other levels are described as follows: "Typically, levels 1 and 2 are during a part of the year when the fire season is only in a small geographic portion of the country. During the winter months, we're usually at national preparedness level 1. That means we don't have a lot of firefighters on duty each day because there's no need, with exception of the southern states. As we get into late March and early April, and the South is still burning, the Southwest, New Mexico, and Arizona begin their fire season. We typically enter level 2. At that level we're starting to bring on private contractors with helicopters and air tankers for the first time. We don't have many of those resources available during level 1. As we get into the month of June, we start to have fires in Nevada and southern Utah and the southern half of California, and that's when the nation starts to go into preparedness level 3. We now have multiple geographic parts of the country with air tankers and helicopters on contract with quite a bit of firefighting going on. Usually not more than 5000 to 6000 of our 25,000 wildland firefighters are actually assigned to a fire. As we get into late July, we go through to late August at national preparedness level 4. That means that all of the geographic areas in the United States are staffed to the optimum level. All the firefighters are on duty, and all the air tankers and helicopters are under contract. All the fire teams are ready to go -- a 25,000-person workforce, primarily federal agency employees with some private contractors. That's the highest preparedness level that we normally operate under."
But 2002 is not a normal year. "At level 5, you pull the plug and ask for help outside the wildland fire service. City firefighters are generally not trained to do this work." To make matters worse, the ongoing drought has raised preparedness levels in San Diego County for the past four years. The last time the Cleveland National Forest declared that fire season was over was in January of 1998. Currently San Diego is in its driest year of recorded history, as is much of the Southwest.
The gravity of San Diego County's fire danger leaves Hawkins uneasy. "This isn't business as usual. If people haven't cleared the brush around their homes, they'd better. Throughout the west, insurance companies are looking at canceling homeowners' insurance as it relates to hazardous fire areas. We're so worried about the consequences of fires this year that we're actually banning campfires at our campgrounds; as far as I know, it's the first time we've done that in the history of our forests. That was a special order signed by the forests' supervisor; just went into effect yesterday. If that doesn't show people how serious the situation is, I don't know what will. This year we are witnessing fires that are behaving in a way outside the realm of most firefighters' experience. When that happens, you have to take extraordinary action."
Hawkins, 50, grew up near the Sierra Nevada mountains and has worked for the forest service since 1971. He has been in charge of the Cleveland National Forest for the past five years. His other assignments have included Sequoia, Sierra, Angeles, and the Shasta-Trinity National Forests. Hawkins spent much of June in Colorado, assisting with the firefighting effort. "I was there working on the fire when they arrested the woman accused of starting it. I have to say that you're innocent until proven guilty, but all the circumstances point toward her being responsible for that fire. I have no comment on the Native-American in Arizona who was arrested. I understand that he is a firefighter who works only when there are fires. Most of the federal agencies have a category of employee like that, but I don't have any facts on that case."
The forest service, in Hawkins's view, does a good job of screening out potential arsonists from their ranks, but some manage to slip through the cracks. "The primary thing is we screen people for past felony convictions, because arson is typically a felony. The problem is, we often don't receive the actual printout on their criminal history until the end of their first year of employment. There's no screening process for temporary employees other than to check for felonies. A more thorough background check is done while they're approaching becoming a permanent employee. That's been the case for my entire 32 years."
The shock of his 32-year career came last year when Jim King, a firefighter from Ramona, was arrested for arson. "My own policy is that I gather all the first-year firefighters in a room and warn them of all the great ways to end their careers -- primarily sexual harassment and arson. Jim King never heard my speech, and that was the first incident of firefighter arson I ever heard of in my career. We were suspicious when we had a couple of fires break out near one of our fire stations last summer, and we immediately placed the vicinity under surveillance. That came to a conclusion a few months ago with a conviction and a prison term of three years." King had no criminal record when he was hired as a firefighter.