THE BLOG
10/27/2007 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Did the Diversion of Resources for the Iraq War Slow the Wildfire Fight?

As California continues to grapple with the spate of terrible wildfires - and new reports that some residents will face hardships for weeks to come, including polluted air, no electricity and no drinking water - it's time to ask if the interminable war in Iraq depleted resources that would have helped the firefighting effort.

And, when the next major earthquake, firestorm, or similar disaster comes, as it surely will, will the diversion of resources create an even greater calamity.

One of greatest tragedies of Hurricane Katrina was the failure of our governmental agencies to rapidly react in the face of the disaster - in part due to the absence of national guard forces who'd been sent overseas - with the resulting loss of life and devastation from which New Orleans is still struggling to recover.

Like every other state, California has experienced a sharp diversion of its National Guard and major equipment shortages that Guard officials themselves have said hinder their ability to respond to a major disaster.

In May, the Guard's Director of Public Affairs Lt. Col. John Siepmann told the San Francisco Chronicle, that a dearth of troops and essential supplies were a growing worry. "Our concern is a catastrophic event. You would see a less effective response," he warned.

The Chronicle reported that the Guard was missing about $1 billion in equipment, including scores of military trucks and Humvees that could be used for transport. Guard guidelines recommend having 39 diesel generators and 1,410 Global Positioning Satellite devices, but there were none on hand, the Chronicle noted.

Similarly, a USA Today survey in June found that California's National Guard had only half of its available equipment required for preparedness for dealing with natural disasters such as a major wildfire or earthquake. Guard officials told USA Today they were short 800 Humvees, 700 medium tactical vehicles and 50 heavy lifter trucks.

Our Guard troop levels have also been stripped down. Gov. Schwarzenegger's office says about 2,500 of our state's 20,000 Guard personnel are deployed overseas, but other reports have put that number as high as 6,000, or nearly a third of our protective force.

Should this be a cause for concern? The acting U.S. Army Secretary Peter Geren thought so. In an August letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, he warned that California's Guard had adequate resources "to respond to small and medium domestic missions," but that "equipment shortages could potentially limit their capability to fully respond to large-scale emergencies."

Boxer voiced her own alarm following that letter, noting in a letter to President Bush, "as a senator from a state where such disasters are far too common, I urge you to take immediate action to ensure that our National Guard is fully prepared to respond to domestic emergencies.''

While California's National Guard Adjutant General Major Gen. William Wade challenged the Army's readiness assessment, his own comments hardly provided much reassurance. The real problem, he said, in a report in the Daily News of Los Angeles, is that the National Guard doesn't have much equipment to begin with -- and what it does have is out of date and in poor condition.

Before the Congress gives the President the next $46 billion he requested this week for the war, they ought to start by providing the equipment we need at home.

California and the Gulf Coast before us are not alone in facing this problem. Just last week, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine blasted the planned deployment of more of his Guard troops to Iraq or Afghanistan which he said, "is undermining of the basic purpose of the National Guard, which is to protect local and state elements from floods and fires."

The heroic efforts of our firefighters, nurses, and other emergency personnel deserve our highest praise. But it is disgraceful to deprive them of the support they need in a moment of crisis.

There are many reasons to oppose the war in Iraq as most Americans do. But bleeding our emergency safety net at home is especially deplorable.

Deborah Burger is a member of the Council of Presidents of the California Nurses Association.