Monday, November 19, 2018

Lessons from the Camp Fire response

The LA Times has a *brilliant* article on the Camp Fire.  The article is hard to read without a map because that is how incredibly complex this situation was/is.

We have 60+ confirmed dead and a 1000 missing and quite frankly the LA Times article reads like the script of an apocalyptic horror movie. No - seriously - there is everything in there from the pregnant woman who goes into labor right in the middle of the worst forest fire in CA history to the kids left behind in a nursery in the path of the fire. It is completely fucking insane how close to a Hollywood movie this is!

Very briefly here is what happened.

The fire was first spotted in its early stages by Capt. Matt McKenzie of the California Forest Department. He was able to determine that the fire was inaccessible to his engines and he requested air support. His request could not be serviced as no water bomber was available at the time.

Without suppression - the fire spread quickly. As there was a extended drought, the fire spread in ways outside the ways laid out in the best known models at the forest department.  As it spread it cut off the MSRs (Main Supply Routes) to small communities in the region. These communities were ordered to evacuate but the sudden evac orders simply created traffic jams on the MSRs.

As the MSRs clogged with vehicles and the fire engulfed the land on the sides of the roads, a major breakdown in the intelligence picture occurred. Reports of fire related distressed popped up on the threat board and central control sent response units as quickly as it could. These response units were thrown at apparent hotspots as response controllers carried out impromptu triage based on data that was quickly outdated.

There was NO reserve. Units were spread thin and quickly surrounded by the fire itself. These encircled units called for air support and received none as *again* the water bombers were in short supply. In many cases these response units were overwhelmed and lost. The psychological pressures created by this state of misinformation and sudden losses of response units created a fog of war.

Accounts of the Camp Fire are parallel in my mind to the 26/11 terror attacks in Bombay. The fog of war contributed heavily to mis-allocation of resources.

I am not pointing fingers at the local controllers - they did the best they could given what limited resources they had - I am however pointing out that there is NO WAY a civilian agency can be expected to cope with this kind of situation. It is humanly impossible for them to transition from the "kitty up a tree" mindset to a warfighting mode.  There is NO VIABLE FRAMEWORK for this.

Given such facts I recommend the following changes.

1) We must recognize that at the current level of climate change, Camp Fire like incidents are likely to be more common in the future.

2) The DOD and DHS must absorb the implications of (1) above. The DHS must be able to mobilize SATINT (including DMET) , remote sensing (including DHS drones) and data fusion (including the DHS Main) to aid local fire management resources. The DOD for its part must take over the administration of air support assets and keep military engines available for this role (this would be akin to the British Army's Green Goddess service which performed to extremely high standards during WWII).

3) A vital aspect of this is at during extreme drought periods we must have water bombers on a runway alert. This system of runway alert will be similar to the Air Sovereignty Alert system used for joint FAA/DHS/USAF operations. At any given time - at least two AC will be on the end of a runway able to deliver a certain payload to the location of the fire within thirty minutes of a scramble code. I agree this is very expensive, but it seems cheaper than having billions of dollars of damage.

4) A related thing to start thinking about is a federal nodal agency to coordinate such responses and to predict the activation of a special response (like the runway alert). A good example of such an agency is the Qatari Government's National Resources Defense Agency (which IIRC is a branch of the Qatari NSC). It will take time to set up a special unit like that - so its is a good idea to get thinking about this now.

I do not expect Trump to do this because - let's face it - he isn't just pretending to be an idiot to cover up for his "Russian engagements".

But it is time for the sane people of the Government to come together and fix things before it becomes truly worse. 


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