A Senate field hearing in San Diego last week brought to light key lessons learned from the recent firestorms that scorched Southern California.
Now we need to turn those lessons into action.
Yet a recent North County Times editorial missed the point of this hearing and mischaracterized legislation offered in the wake of the fires.
The intent of this hearing was clear: To investigate what happened and find a way forward to better fire prevention, firefighting and disaster aid.
This is in the spirit of what must be done following disaster: Review lessons learned, examine areas needing improvement, and put the dollars where they are needed most.
Here's what we learned:
First, we must act now to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, which occur with increasing frequency in tinder-dry California.
That's why I recently introduced legislation to establish a model Fire Safe ordinance, with better building and fire codes for communities at high risk of wildfire. This model ordinance would be drafted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in partnership with the U.S. Fire Administration, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.
Let me be clear: This legislation does not force anything on any community. It simply creates a model, which communities are free to adopt or not.
This legislation includes incentives to encourage best practices, while leaving decisions entirely in local hands.
Communities adopting this ordinance would be eligible to have up to 90 percent of their costs of fighting wildfires reimbursed by the federal government. That's up from 75 percent available today.
As CalFire Director Ruben Grijalva said at Tuesday's hearing: "Until we build more fire-resistant homes in the urban-wildlife interface, our state will continue to suffer significant losses."
Second, there must be better coordination between the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the military.
The entire CalFire spotter program should be reviewed by the governor's office to ensure that adequate numbers of spotters ---- also known as helicopter managers ---- are available 24/7 during fire season.
We need to ensure that military aircraft are deployed quickly when wildfires strike. I am encouraging the military and California fire officials to reach agreement on a memorandum of understanding to ensure that prompt aerial attacks on fires are not delayed by bureaucratic red tape.
And we need to ensure that an adequate number of C-130 military cargo planes can carry new state-of-the-art firefighting systems. Congress began funding this program in 2000, yet it still is not completed. This job must be finished by May 2008.
Third, we need local leadership that makes the tough decisions to ensure sufficient fire protection.
It is vital that local fire departments have adequate funding to protect lives and property and meet national standards for staffing and response times.
I stand ready to work with San Diego officials to help any way I can.
The stakes are high. The costliest wildfires in U.S. history occurred in California during a period of rapid development in the wildland-urban interface.
The financial cost: more than $8 billion since 1990 alone.
Wildfires pose a growing menace to California. They burn hotter and with greater intensity, and threaten more and more lives and property. It is vital that we work together now and do all we can to meet the serious threat posed by these huge fires.