Sep 28, 2009
By the time the fire season was barely a month old, the state of California had already burnt through most of its entire annual fire budget – even though Governor Schwarzenegger had made a big deal about doubling the budget over the previous year.
This wasn’t just because of the number and severity of the fires. Over the years, the cost of fighting the fires has skyrocketed, as more and more of the work has been farmed out to private contractors. Roughly 60% of government wildfire expenditures go to private contractors – including firefighting, training and fuel reduction projects. Private contractors large and small provide a wide range of equipment and services on wildfires, including aircraft, ambulances, earthmovers, water trucks, even portable air-traffic-control towers and their operators. California ranchland is rented to stage heavy equipment.
Big fires have become big business and big profits.
Some of the biggest contractors are the companies that supply big aerial tankers, like converted DC-10s and C-140s. During the Station Fire one DC-10 was contracted out for a period of 90 straight days at an average of $45,000 per day. For the other, the state paid $66,000 per day for a minimum of five days.
The appearance of these big planes dropping water and retardant is very dramatic. However, these big planes are not well-suited to operate in California’s steep canyons and mountains or at low altitudes required for effective delivery of water and retardant. Much of the drops miss their marks and are wasted. No wonder firefighters call the use of the big planes “CNN drops,” because they make good television for the politicians... and profits for the contractors.
Fires are a very profitable “cash crop,” indeed.