Big, burning, boisterous – that California should have formidable firepower was always more or less a given. The state is too large and its fires too prominent to ignore. But the shape of state-sponsored fire management was far from foreordained. Local authorities have fire responsibility for roughly a third of California; the federal agencies for another third; and the rest, falls to the state. But it was never obvious how these entities might unite, and certainly not inevitable that the State of California would establish an in-house firefighting force and extend urban-style fire services throughout some 31 million acres on a scale that has made it the biggest of its kind in the world, the third largest fire agency in the U.S., and a gravitational disturbance to the national commonwealth.
All states have foresters, and all assist with fire protection beyond cities and the federal estate. Many, like New York’s, were created to staff state parks or forests. Texas established a forestry bureau, which came to assume rural fire protection responsibilities, but by 2010 (and keeping with that state’s anti-institutional instincts) its permanent staff numbered a scant 375. Alaska’s Division of Forestry manages 20 million acres of state forests and furnishes fire protection for 150 million, but has little presence outside. Probably the closest cognate is Florida’s Division of Forestry (now, Florida Forest Service), which maintains general rural fire protection for most counties and became a national pioneer in institutionalizing prescribed fire. But none compare in scale and heft to CalFire.
Some quirk of California geography and life allowed a puny Board of Forestry to bulk up into a behemoth and have its fire obligations dominate the others. The simplest explanation is the spasmodic tempo of California history, specifically its proneness to cataclysms. No single institution could by itself cope with such catastrophes; each new crisis forced the state to fill in the gaps between other fire agencies and to seek alliances among them; each cataclysm boosted overall capacity a quantum level. So effective did the response become that the system not only reacted massively to cataclysms but paradoxically discovered it could not survive without them. It found new ways to live beyond its means because, in California, the mean has meant little. It is the extreme event that drives history. California became a permanent state of emergency.
§ In 1885 the state created a Board of Forestry. It was timely if toothless, part of a false dawn across North America to halt untrammeled slashing and promiscuous burning. The Board was able to hire a few “agents” and enroll citizens to help enforce laws about starting and fighting fires, with little effect. It withered away by 1893.[i]
In 1905, the same year the national forests were transferred to the Bureau of Forestry, which renamed itself the U.S. Forest Service, the California legislature passed a Forest Protection Act. The Act reconstituted the Board of Forestry, appointed a state forester, and granted him authority to designate volunteer fire wardens who could, in turn, enforce forest and fire laws and impress citizens to aid during emergencies. The Act further allowed counties to organize “fire districts” (at their expense). It granted to the forester responsibility for the state’s park, Big Basin. And it permitted the state forester, in times of “particular fire danger,” to staff fire patrols with the cost borne by counties. In effect, California did on a state level what was happening on the national scene. Accordingly, the state’s first hire was E.T. Allen, an assistant forester with the U.S. Forest Service.
The state, in practice, contributed little. The counties paid for patrols, the firewardens were volunteers, and the only effective fire protection force was that furnished by the newly endowed USFS, supplemented in Southern California by organizations committed to watersheds. In 1911 the Weeks Act allowed for formal cooperation (and grants in aid) between the federal government and qualifying states (“qualifying” meant the state had to contribute funds to the common cause of fire protection). Mostly, on-the-ground firefighting was the work of private range, timber, and watershed associations which contributed labor-in-kind and occasionally funds for trails and fuelbreaks.
The breakthrough came in 1919 with two new laws. One reconstituted (again) the Board of Forestry, which eventually came to be known informally as the Forest Department. The other permitted the state forester to create administrative units and appoint state fire rangers to supervise them, and granted some funds. The upshot was, in principle, an integration of government fire services. California could now join the Weeks program and claim federal subsidies; and it could operate on rural lands in ways jointly financed with the counties. In 1923 a public outcry halted an 80% cut of the forestry budget. Instead, the legislature enacted statutes under which counties could create fire protection districts and forest landowners could be charged for fire protection by the state if they did not maintain a “fire patrol” on their own. Few counties outside of Southern California took advantage of the act. The upshot was to increase state responsibility.
Still, an actual presence was meager. The 1919 program consisted of four patrolmen hired seasonally. In 1922 the Forest Department erected its first fire lookout. By 1923 the state had 16 rangers, four inspectors, and two lookouts. The next year Congress upgraded cooperative fire programs with the Clarke-McNary Act, which quadrupled the federal contribution. Cooperative agreements with national forests allowed for mutual aid along shared boundaries. Twenty counties contracted with the state to provide some level of protection. But field results were still lean. In 1927 the Forest Department had a staff of 28 rangers, six patrolmen, seven inspectors, and nine lookouts.
The reality was, the state never appropriated enough to do the task it set for itself. Instead, it looked up to the feds for grants and down to the counties, fire districts, and landowner fees to staff for protection – and to a State Emergency Fund, whose expenditures fluctuated from $50,000 to $300,000 annually, “a huge sum compared with the regular State Forester’s budget of those days,” as Ray Clar observed dryly. The state had effectively miniaturized the national system, with itself assuming the role of the federal government disbursing to the counties as the USFS did to the states and relying on emergency supplements to cover shortfalls. Increasingly, the cost of big fires forced it to consider a quasi-permanent staff of patrolmen instead of pickup labor. The apparent logic of fire argued, to many minds, for the state to create its own fire service for rural lands rather than outsource the job to others. The evident logic of politics and finances argued, however, that such a conception was a chimera.[ii]
The Great Depression changed the calculus. Again, as though an echo of the federal Forest Service, California’s sponsored a comprehensive survey of the issue (the Sanford Plan as surrogate for the Copeland Report), found additional funds and staffing, and built out an infrastructure in short order. Emergency monies and the Civilian Conservation Corps helped match means with ends. California became the largest and most audacious arena for CCC presuppression projects, of which the 650-mile long fuelbreak known as the Ponderosa Way may claim special honors for hubris. Between the WPA and the CCC emergency programs erected over 300 lookout towers, 9,000 miles of telephone line, 1.16 million miles of roads and trails, and numberless fire stations, tool sheds for smokechasers, and office and storage buildings.
With local options flattened by the crisis the Department of Forestry stepped in to make the case for a California-wide “master fire plan.” Its essence was the belief that the various jurisdictions of governance should each be responsible for their own lands, which would leave Forestry to assume fire protection on the remaining landscapes as designated by the state. The plan would do for fire what parallel schemes would do for water. No longer would Forestry concentrate only on sites of high-value timberlands and watersheds. As the only fire department capable of reaching much of rural California, it would extend its mantle over the countryside as well. It could provide consistent, measured protection – the only governmental entity equipped for the task. The legislature was ambivalent, appreciating the value of the service but alarmed about funding it. The General Fund was in deficit. The CCC was being decommissioned. Repeal of the Compulsory Patrol Act of 1923 was imminent. For two years floods not fires had submerged requests for more revenue.
What spared collapse was catastrophe. The threat of war led to a scheme for civil defense, prompted by the War Department and the State Council of Defense – what became the California Fire Disaster Plan. As an existing network already responding to emergencies, the Department of Forestry was enrolled and designated as a statewide dispatch system. The scheme was entirely rational, and almost wholly hypothetical. For over two decades California had only begrudgingly built up its rural fire capabilities, preferring to decentralize and cooperate in ways that left the state more a broker than a player. A lot of shoving went on during legislative scrimmages, but neither side could effectively move the other.
Then came Pearl Harbor, and written plans doffed hardhats and staffed engines and lookouts in the expectation of attacks or sabotage on the mainland. At this time Forestry was under the administrative aegis of the Department of Natural Resources. Its director, Kenneth Fulton, proposed a dramatic escalation in state expenditures in anticipation of the extraordinary effort the war would demand. It was a sum calculated to jar the most jaded observer – “considerably more than the total war-caused needs requested by 22 other State departments.” In effect, CDF would become California’s department of defense. The money came through. The master fire plan gave Forestry its marching orders.
Over the course of the Second World War, California completed the infrastructure – “all the essential features of a full blown ideal plan,” as Clar remembered – that the CCC had begun. The state would furnish fire protection wherever its resources allowed. It would step in, if reimbursed, to augment county forces. It would finance emergency firefighting. The funds bestowed (almost coerced) by the threat of war would become the new budgetary floor. The military added manpower to firelines. Conservation Camps of both juvenile and adult inmates replaced the CCC, and then persisted as a permanent source of labor. In place of coordinating volunteers, CDF was on its way to becoming one of the dominant institutions for fire protection in the nation.
Of course problems persisted. Squabbling was incessant over who should pay how much and for what. What exactly were the expectations on state responsibility areas (SRAs)? How much should the state pay counties for contract services if they so elected? (There were five, four of them in the south.) How much should CDF evolve from strictly forestry issues into an all-hazard fire service? Always, too, even in flush times like the 1960s, the state failed to appropriate funds sufficient to what standards demanded. Instead, the funding gaps were made up through expenditures from an emergency fund, and if the state’s account were spent, through federal aid. A wartime emergency had created, almost overnight, a comprehensive system. A continual cold war on fire kept it running.
§ What makes the California scene distinctive, however, is not that a state agency swelled so large but that wildland and urban fire melded. Even as the state’s landmass was being pulled toward one or the other pole at the expense of a rural middle, something caused those extremes to fuse, and to hold together for a common cause. Something had to act as a flywheel to keep the pistons that powered fire protection, whether in cities, parks, woodlands, or pastures, in sync. That is the historic role of the Office of Emergency Services, and as its name suggests, what forced the disparate parts into a single engine of response was crisis.
No entity could cope with the scale of California calamity on its own; no one could keep constantly on hand all the materiel and personnel that an emergency might demand, and even planning for an “average worst” event ignored the nonlinear – very unaverage way – in which California cataclysms collided with California society every decade or so. When the winds shrieked and the flames poured over the ridges, neighbor had to help neighbor, and when that failed, the region reached further, as it did with water. But as much as stockpiled apparatus, an agency charged with responding needed communications adequate to ensure that requested help could talk to the requester, and that once on the scene the differently uniformed and equipped responders could speak to one another. It needed incentives adequate to break down tribal allegiances and protocols. It needed a profound external shock.
In 1941 the California legislature enacted a War Powers Act that bestowed on the governor authority over all civilian protection agencies, notably fire departments, in the event of attack or a declaration of war. The governor assigned that particular responsibility to the attorney general, who established a State Fire Advisory Committee to oversee fire protection across ten civil defense regions. The group included representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, California Department of Forestry, state fire marshal, and the chiefs of the three largest municipal departments (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego). The state forester chaired the committee. The provisions moved from theory to practice shortly after Pearl Harbor. War against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany made possible a collective fight against fire.
When the war ended, the military crisis was discharged into civilian life. In 1945 the California Disaster Act replaced the Advisory Committee with a similarly membered California State Disaster Council. Probably earthquakes could have replaced the threat of invasion, but major tremblors came too rarely and randomly. A state of continual emergency demanded a cataclysm that would recur in place and time with some regularity. California fire, particularly Southern California conflagrations, was ideal. The United States, too, commenced what might seem a permanent state of war, first with Korea, then the Cold War, and a succession regional hot wars. Each external threat – the onset of the Korean conflict coincided with the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb – boosted the capacity for internal reaction to threats of all kinds. The state established an Office of Civil Defense directly responsible to the governor, which included a Fire and Rescue and Emergency Services Branch and resulted in a Fire Disaster Plan.
Over the next decade the program underwent almost annual upgrades, and no less significantly, it found pots of honey to offset the dose of threatened vinegar. In 1951, in a civil-defense version of the Weeks Act, the federal government announced a program of matching grants for state and local authorities to acquire fire and rescue materiel. The projected windfall was significant – a hundred triple-combination engines, 29 heavy duty rescue trucks, 100,000 feet of quick-couple pipe, and the basics of a state-wide radio system. Gaining access to this cache was a powerful incentive for fire services to sign on since the engines, when not called out for emergencies, would be housed in local departments. To ensure equity as well as efficiency, the hardware needed software, however, so the Fire Advisory Board adopted a protocol for distributing OCD’s largesse to its members. All would be available to all. The old practice of cooperative fire and mutual aid, previously restricted to shared boundaries of cities and forests, swelled to cover 100 million acres. As in other matters, California assumed the role and scale of a nation in itself.
The pressures mounted while the L.A. Basin filled out and tract homes shouldered against the ridge spines, debris dams, and interior hills even as conflagrations seemed to come as often as the summer drought. 1953: the Monrovia Peak fire. 1954: the Panorama Point fire. 1955: the Refugio fire. 1956: the Malibu and Inaja fires. Southern California resembled a pyric fault zone, with each stressed patch rupturing in sequence. Then came 1961 with the Basin and the Harlow fires along the Sierra foothills, and, most notoriously, the Bel Air-Brentwood disaster, which burned the backlots of Los Angeles city itself. Each called on OES for support and each in turn stimulated the demand for more.
The sprawl of fires appeared to outpace the blistering urban growth. Even the proudest, most autonomous fire department could not keep pace on its own. The hits kept on coming. The Decker fire, the Loop fire, the Canyon fire – the blowups were killing firefighters as much as they were leveling houses and unsettling watersheds. But it was not enough to send more hose: the flames were crossing the borders that separated not only incompatible land uses but fire services. The Forest Service trained to fight free-burning wildfire; counties and cities trained to protect structures and evacuate civilians. It was not easy to reconcile those tasks, and for all its impressive dimensions, the institutional edifice was, up close, full of cracks and loose boards.
Still, this being California, only a truly Big One could rattle the still-lingering complacency and confidence. The jolt came in 1970.
§ That year big fires blew a thunderous rain of sparks through the gaps. From September 22 to October 4, 773 fires broke out, of which 32 escaped initial attack, blackened 580,000 acres, burned 722 houses and some 200 additional structures, and inspired the largest mobilization in California history. Of the 32 big fires, all but three were in Southern California including the monstrous Laguna fire (160,000 acres) and a complex that swarmed over the celebrity Santa Monica Mountains. Under OES direction firefighting forces converged from across the state, and then from around the West. They came from the feds: the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. They came from the state: the California Division of Forestry, the National Guard, Conservation Corps camps, and OES’s own reserves of engines and support. They came local authorities: cities from San Diego to Los Angeles to Oakland; counties from San Bernardino to Humboldt, and especially the “contract counties” of the South Coast – Los Angeles, Ventura, Kern, and Santa Barbara. Outside fire crews poured in, from Forest Service hotshots to the Southwest Forest Firefighters, Snake River Valley laborers, and local Hispanic field workers. Fire engines by the hundreds funneled south. Some 28 air tankers flew missions, and a flotilla of helicopters dumped water, retardant, and burnout flares. At a time when critics of the endless Vietnam War were arguing to “bring the war home,” the fall of 1970 seemed to realize that ambition.
The 1956 fires at Malibu and Inaja had advertised the impending crisis, the 1961 Bel Air-Brentwood fire had broadcast the message widely, and the lethal 1966 Loop fire had confirmed the high costs in money and lives. Each had yielded targeted reforms. But the 1970 fires sought to oversee the whole, to imagine a collective response on a par with the state water plan or the reorganization of its university system. That charge fell to a Task Force on California’s Wildland Fire Problem, which promptly and efficiently identified the usual suspects and prescribed the traditional cures. It recognized that the 1970 explosion had plenty of antecedents and would foreshadow many offspring if nothing substantial changed.
The breakthrough came when Congress ordered another tact under the direction of the Riverside Forest Fire Lab. In 1971 a group headed by Richard Chase reincarnated the California fascination with systems engineering that dated back to duBois (this time updated by experiences from the aerospace industry) and sought to make the process of firefighting work better. The tangle of jurisdictions and jumbled hardware could be – had to be – made to function much more smoothly. While it seemed unlikely that planners could shake tract homes free of wooden shingles, zone out construction in the wind equivalent of mountain debris fans, or even agree on the ultimate purposes of fire management, it should be possible to improve firefighting. The outcome was FIRESCOPE.
FIRESCOPE (FIrefighting REsources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies) had its research charter approved in 1973, moved into field trials in 1975, and went operational in a graduated series of expansions from 1977-79. Ideally, it sought a systems approach by which data would flow in, predictions about fire behavior and countermeasures would be generated, and a collective response from resources pooled by many agencies would follow. In practice, the elaborate gathering of information and modeling of fire behavior fell by the wayside, and what remained was the essence of the firefight itself, a means by which to coordinate personnel and equipment from scores of agencies to a common crisis. By means of sophisticated software, FIRESCOPE sought to reconcile a jumble of hardware platforms and the organizational cultures that operated them. It would do for individual incidents what OES did for statewide crises.[iii]
Almost immediately, however, the chasm between wildland and urban fire services threatened to undo the enterprise. They had evolved in utterly different ways: all they had in common were those moments when flame put them both at a common border. Researchers were astonished that they not only had different terms for apparatus and operators but struggled to find terminology both could agree to. The example all cited was what to call a machine that squirted water. Urban fire departments called it an “engine.” Wildland fire departments called it a “pumper.” The terms reflected more than different classification schemas; they were markers of different occupational cultures, such that discussions quickly pivoted on the heritage and relative strength of their experiences. Yet each lexicographical difference was sand in the gears of common operations. Each difference was multiplied by scores of jealous jurisdictions.
All politics being local, and border exurbs being the shared focus, the provincial city and county fire departments came to dominate. They insisted that all vehicles that pumped water be called “engines,” that fire officers be chiefs, battalion chiefs, captains, or engineers, not fire bosses, line bosses, or fire management officers, that standards for apparatus and performance come from the urban rather than the wildland side. Firefighters would wear turnout gear; fire officers would display bugles of rank on their collars. In the end, cooperation meant co-option. And because what happened in one part of California had to reconcile with the rest if emergency call-outs were to succeed, the triumph of the urban model in the south meant its propagation everywhere.
Still, it took another 15 years and more catastrophic fires to replace the centrifugal forces of the assorted institutions with the centripetal power of OES. FIRESCOPE and the OES co-evolved. In 1971 OES updated the California Emergency Plan, which included its Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid Plan. The 1977 fire siege, during which FIRESCOPE was vigorously tested, was followed by another upgrade. In 1980, another big Southern California fire year, which included the ravenous Panorama fire, OES assumed full management for the program, and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group examined the program for possible national use. In 1982 ICS was rewritten into a National Interagency Incident Management System, and the federal government ended its contributions. In keeping with tradition, some 60% of the original system remained unfunded.
The participating agencies appreciated that if they wish to realize the full opportunities proposed by cooperation, they would have to encompass the state and to embrace an all-hazard model. OES coordinated the effort to spread FIRESCOPE lessons northward under the auspices of a California Fire Information Resources Management System (CALFIRMS). The integration was completed in 1986, not only between north and south but between FIRESCOPE and OES Fire and Rescue Service Advisory Committee as well. The outcome was the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA) and a commissioned needs-assessment for the future. The reforms arrived just after the fire siege of 1985 and before the siege of 1987. Further stress tests on the system followed in 1991 with the East Bay Hills (Tunnel) fire and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. By allowing for instant cooperation when requested, the biggest fire departments in the country in effect got bigger.[iv]
FIRESCOPE succeeded as few fire research projects ever have. Because the logic of cooperation and the catalyst of catastrophe demanded ever more, its operational core, the ICS, went national, and then international to underwrite a universal protocol for all-hazard emergency systems. Interagency Management Teams went to Yellowstone in 1988. They went to the Twin Towers in 2001. They assisted in the recovery of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. They joined the Hurricane Katrina response in 2005. Significantly, NIMS as an R&D program migrated from the federal land agencies that first sponsored it to FEMA which now oversees its further development. That shift, however, had already been anticipated in California through OES. It was a familiar California story of an intrastate solution that became a national norm.
§ In 1945, the same year it passed the California Disaster Act, the legislature enacted the Forest Practice Act, the Act of June 25 that established a permit system for range burning, and appropriated funds to purchase lands for a state demonstration forest. Forestry had to respond to controlled burning, wildfire, and timber harvesting. The agency was a predominantly rural presence. But big fires, urban sprawl, and an institutional conscription for cataclysms all pushed the California Department of Forestry away from its origins.
The postwar economy, after a boom decade, shifted from commodities to amenities. Cattle moved from ranches to farms and feedlots, forestry meant recreation and biodiversity not timber harvesting, and wildfire left wildlands and the rural countryside for an urban fringe. Even with a third of its responsibility lands lightly populated, the counties (or local fire protection districts) that contracted with CDF for emergency services were either filling with houses and malls or had their institutional geography deformed by such development. What happened everywhere in California happened with CDF: the urban model dominated. Meanwhile, even as demand increased, CDF’s funding from traditional sources shrank, quickened by the tax revolt that culminated in Proposition 13 in 1978. It sought to update traditional practices with such measures as the Chaparral (later, Vegetation) Management Program. But its change in context inexorably changed CDF.
Its one constant was fire control. Even rabid tax protesters demanded protection, and big fires, as emergencies, stood outside routine budgets. More and more its fire mission defined the agency. Its original uniform patches were a circle with a green conifer in the center. In 1979 its patches balanced two parts, one with a green tree and the other with a red flame in a triangle. In 1987 the agency changed its title to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In 1999 it eliminated the title “ranger” in favor of “chief.” Collar brass now identified ranking. The next year CDF abandoned its classic green and khaki uniform, long the trademarks of a forester, for the navy blue favored by urban fire services, particularly LACFD. In 2006 the agency completed its transformation by relabeling itself CAL FIRE. It had become an urban fire service in the woods.[v]
Paradoxically, by narrowing its land management mission into emergency response, CalFire had grown large. By time of their shared centennials it was second only to the U.S. Forest Service nationally as a fire and emergency agency. It exercised primary responsibility for 31 million acres and provided a degree of emergency services for 36 counties. It had a permanent staff of 3,800, a seasonal boost of 1,400, and a conservation (inmate) corps of 4,300 arrayed into 39 camps. It owned 23 air tankers and 11 helicopters. It had 58 bulldozers and 38 aerial ladder trucks. It responded to over 5,700 fires annually – and more than 300,000 incidents. It had an operating budget of $775 million. How much it actually spent depended, as always, on big fires, busts, and sieges.[vi]
§ The saying that “fire does not respect borders” is, like many truisms, a half-truth. Flames certainly ignore boundaries that do not, in fact, bound anything other than names, and the phrase comes with a tinge of scorn where borders signify political entities that attempt to divide on a map what nature holds in common. Yet borders can also join together what nature has sundered. Both trends characterize California.
The need to respond to overwhelming crises, particularly wildfire, forced agencies to cross lines. If an agency stayed only within its jurisdictional boundaries, it would fail. The scope of cataclysm would overwhelm it. Yet in devising ways to cross boundaries, California the state unified what otherwise did not have common cause. It cajoled, coerced, cooperated with, co-opted, and otherwise joined what nature had sundered. It bonded Sierra redwood with coastal sage, Los Angeles with the San Gabriels, San Francisco with the Ventana wilderness, and that most fungible and intangible of all intrastate divides, northern and southern California. Its impact could transcend California altogether: an “incident” became a category dissociated from any particular land and its history. In the ICS Maine could find itself on the same line as Texas.
Those forced fusions demanded a powerful jolt of energy, and one that could repeat itself. California found that catalyst in recurring catastrophes, genuine or imagined. In the case of fire, the cataclysms were all too real, all too frequent, and all-too-often prone to border crossings. In the end, even California could not contain them. As both its critics and partisans have long believed, California, it would appear, is unbounded.
September 2011 / [pdf]
Acknowledgements: Compared with most agencies CalFire has successfully preserved a record of its past. The agency generously made available that in-house archive to me. I wish to thank Janet Upton for setting up my visit, and Mary Welna for introducing me to that rich storehouse. I also wish to thank Chief Ken Pimlott for an opportunity to meet. Kim Zagaris of CalEMA went even further, not only creating a most useful interview with Richard Barrows but handing over a cache of copied documents. I regret, as so often, that an essay on a topic that the agencies themselves may regard as tangential is the outcome to what could easily constitute a book in itself. My task is to place the agencies within California, and California within the national fire scene. My thanks to all.