Union leader: Bush failed in Calif. Fire

ENSCONDIDO, Calif. (PAI) — California officials showed leadership helping hundreds of thousands of San Diego-area residents forced to flee their homes during the state’s weeklong fire disaster, said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, but President Bush didn’t.

In a press conference in Escondido during the fires, which raged the week of Oct. 21, Schaitberger, whose IAFF members were among those state and federal firefighters battling the blazes, said the state’s firefighters arrived within two days to help local crews.

At least 14 people were killed and 142 injured, including 115 firefighters, news reports said. At least a million residents were temporarily evacuated, and over 2,000 homes were destroyed.

Schaitberger also made a comparison between California’s response and those of Gulf Coast officials during Hurricane Katrina, as well as Bush’s response to both disasters. Bush flunked both, said Schaitberger, whose union membership has a plurality of Republicans.

“While residents in and around New Orleans continue to struggle because of the botched response to Katrina, California has a better chance to fully recover because the state quickly and methodically responded to this natural disaster,” he said.

Bush is another matter. He tried repeatedly to cut funds for firefighters from the federal budget, but Congress turned him down. And that’s consistent with the president’s overall attitude, Schaitberger said.

“This president has failed firefighters by seeking to slash funding they need to protect our communities” and tried to eliminate a firefighter recruitment and training program entirely, he said. “He is demonstrating with the wildfire disaster in California, as he did in response to Hurricane Katrina, that he is satisfied with showing his face at the height of a disaster, rather than preparing for it beforehand,” the union leader added.

California did not get a totally free pass from the IAFF, though. Schaitberger recommended that it “needs to keep firefighters with Cal Fire on duty all year, rather than rely on a seasonal force.”

“While the wildfires may be seasonal, the need for a well-trained, year-round, fulltime fire department is evident. With resources already running thin in many communities, firefighters were being deployed to fight the wildfires, leaving their own cities and communities at serious risk.”