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Former Under Secretary of Homeland Security, Author of “Deadly Indifference”, National Security Blog Expert - The National Journal, Political Blogger - The Daily Caller, Radio Talk Show Host - "The Michael Brown Show", Founder & Chairman - Apoklayyis, Inc.

Barack Obama & The Waldo Canyon Fire

Waldo Canyon Fire photograph by Helen Richardson, AP

Every natural or manmade disaster is infused with politics. Period.

The wildfires in Colorado are no different, and we’re seeing that today in the reaction to the news that President Obama hasn’t spoken to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper since June 12, fifteen days ago, and the sudden announcement after today’s White House press gaggle that Obama will visit Colorado Friday.

The largest fire in Colorado history, the High Park Fire, first caught the official attention of the federal government on June 6th when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved a fire management assistance grant (FMAG) for the fire now burning more than 80,000 acres in Larimer County. Additional fires consuming more than 149,288 acres or 231 square miles of land are burning in Colorado as of 5:30 p.m. MDT today. The Waldo Canyon Fire in El Paso County is moving in to the city of Colorado Springs, prompting the evacuation of 32,000 people, and the evacuation of the United States Air Force Academy. That fire, with its stunning visuals, caught the national media’s attention at least two days ago.

When fires of this magnitude broke out in California during my tenure as director of FEMA I was in California immediately, spending several weeks, and returning to DC only once overnight in order to meet with then-Senator Hillary Clinton about programs for New York City’s schools post-9/11. Andy Card, President Bush’s chief of staff, directed me to return to California immediately upon completing that meeting so we would have a White House and FEMA presence throughout those fires. California was never a battleground state in the upcoming 2004 election. It was about leadership.

Fox News reports that after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney admitted today President Obama hadn’t spoke to Colorado’s governor in over 2 weeks while wildfires ravaged the state, the White House rushed out a press release stating that Obama had just spoken with Governor Hickenlooper. Too little, too late, in the world of disaster politics.

Despite the bashing by Republicans about how out-of-touch politically Obama has been as tens of thousands of U.S. citizens seek shelter from the storms, what should we expect a President to do when a natural disaster like this strikes?

At least an acknowledgement of the disaster. It’s simple. A Rose Garden press conference urging prayers, contributions and support for the families and firefighters. A public acknowledgment of the FMAG, or federal resources for firefighting. A few sentences could be inserted to speeches given at fundraisers to remember the victims and encouraging his donors to help by contributing to the volunteer organizations feeding and helping firefighters and citizens.

Something. Anything but silence.

This is not just good disaster politics, it’s good leadership. The people of Colorado (and Utah, New Mexico, Florida and others) are suffering. The leader of the nation, while not able to really do anything himself to help, can at least lead the nation in understanding that parts of our country are suffering and deserving of our thoughts, prayers and support.

Leadership. That’s all a President can do during disasters.

Now President Obama is coming to Colorado.

Wrong time.

The fire in Waldo Canyon is zero percent contained as I write. 30,000+ citizens have evacuated. Air operations are incessant, congested and critical.

Marine One will get in the way if it flies anywhere near the AOR (area of operations). Had President Obama engaged this disaster earlier, he wouldn’t feel compelled to fly into an area that he will simply complicate by his presence. He’s muddled and made matters worse by waiting too long to acknowledge the disaster. Now the White House is trying to play catch-up by making an appearance that will complicate operations. If he comes to Colorado and doesn’t at least fly Marine One along Interstate 25 to view the conflagration, he’ll be seen as uncaring. If he tries to appear caring now, he interrupts operations.

They have botched the politics of disasters.

President Bush made his infamous fly-over of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina despite my pleas to land in Baton Rouge where operations were centered and where he could have used his bully pulpit to essentially tell the nation and the cabinet that he was paying attention and they should, too. Instead, he suffered the political backlash of staring out that window of Air Force 1.

Now Obama faces the Hobson’s choice of showing up and getting in the way, or viewing the disaster from Marine One. Let me assure you, even if the President uses Marine One to fly into the AOR he will interrupt operations and firefighting. During one of President Bush’s flyovers of the Gulf coast he constantly turned to me insisting that I instruct the Secret Service and air traffic controllers to not disrupt on-going operations. Nonetheless, because of security restrictions, helicopters and other aircraft were diverted around Marine One as we made our tour. It’s just the nature of presidential visits.

So the politics of disasters enter Colorado this week. President Obama has muffed this one.

Stay home. Come back after the firefighters get things under control.

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15 Responses to “Barack Obama & The Waldo Canyon Fire”

  1. Ryan #

    You are a tool

    June 27, 2012 at 6:21 pm
    • Too bad you didn’t read the article. The President waited too long and now will most likely interrupt operations – or at least strain them even more by coming into the disaster at the wrong time. He ignored it until he was asked about it at a press conference. He is choosing to come here now while people are still risking their lives fighting the fire. Unless he stays completely away from the AOR his presence will strain resources and will cause a disturbance.

      Not sure how that’s being a tool by pointing it out, but hey, you must know.

      June 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm
  2. LeisureGoddess #

    Unfortunately, you are pandering to your Wingnuts and Teaparticans… and they already drank your kool-aid. This uninformed bit of right wing propaganda serves no one. Politicizing these immense fires is really shameful on your part!!!!! You should be writing of ways to help those who have lost everything in these disasters. Or taking time out to help.

    You will have plenty of time between now and November to assert your limited views of Obama.

    You gain nothing. Take a look in the mirror tonight. You will see it. Nothing.

    June 27, 2012 at 7:45 pm
    • Wingnuts, teaparticans, and I’m pandering? Wow.

      Uninformed right wing propaganda?

      You didn’t read it or if you did, won’t accept it.

      I looked in the mirror a long time ago, do everyday. Interesting that you know what I see. Amazing powers!

      Oh, and you don’t know what I’ve done to help so don’t assume that I haven’t. Or is that a limited view?

      June 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm
  3. Practicing self restraint #

    I’m near the Waldo Canyon Fire and have been following the details and public explanations since the beginning on Saturday 6/23. 1) I’ve heard leadership say how federal law prohibits use of Forest Service C130s being used until commercial resources were exhausted.

    2) I’ve heard them say how there wasn’t really enough room to fly C130s without being in conflict with the air support currently in use.

    3) I’ve heard it explained that slurry dispensed from C130s or other aircraft may not be used within 300 feet of streams due to regulations against contamination.

    4) I’ve heard it explained that bringing in support from the military or the national guard was unrealistic because there was not the available support or deployment strategy to effectively utilize the resource safely or without being in the way of existing tactical applications.

    5) I’ve heard it stated that the Waldo Canyon fire is the number 1 priority in the nation, yet the Ft Collins fire has been burning for two plus weeks, burned ten times as much area, destroyed ten times as many homes and suffered am unfortunate civilian casualty.

    6) I’ve heard that ten years ago there were 44 heavy support commercial aircraft for fighting fires across the nation and now there are 9.

    I don’t want to criticize any of the folks trying to fight the fires or trying to make the best of the resources available to them. However, every single explanation/excuse is an administrative issue of leadership and not a contributor to extinguishing fires. I recognize that I am not in possession of all the details but it appears that the fire fighting philosophy is to target reactive strategy based upon current or anticipation of what will be immediate developments or conditions and somehow ends up behind the fires ability to accelerate and consume more area, structures and fire fighting resource.

    I recognize the cost of prevention of these unfortunate developments is higher than we have been able to currently budget but speculate that it would be more affordable than the recovery from the tragedies that have been openly anticipated; which unfortunately do not provide for the realistic anticipation of subsequent or future wildfire events.

    The president’s campaign visit on Friday appears planned to coincide with the anticipation projected successful efforts to enter conclusive phases for containment.

    For everyone’s sake, I hope he is correct in spite of his assistance, not because of it. As an aside, I have become an advocate for Erickson Air Cranes that can be fitted to carry up to 2650 gallons of water(nearly as much as a C130 at 3000 gal), can fill by snorkel from a pond as shallow as 18″ inches and can do it in 45 seconds. Additionally, they can distribute with greater precision than the C130s. More access to more of these would be a good thing.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm
    • You’ve captured it quite well.

      We often forget in these disasters that other governmental entities have rules and regulations that everyone tries to follow. That was one of the problems in Katrina, and when I tried to get people to “push the envelope” and “break the rules” they were reticent, even when assuring them I’d take the blame (kinda’ ironic, huh).

      Bottom line, fighting the fire should be top priority, irrespective of whether it’s near a stream or whether some rule exists that might limit that firefighting.

      Likewise, mitigation may cost up-front, but usually pays for itself over the long-run. But politicians don’t see it that way; and therefore, are reticent to invest in the equipment and manpower necessary. Couple that attitude with budget restraints, and you see what you get – Waldo Canyon, High Park, et al.

      MB

      June 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm
      • Practicing self restraint #

        Now I digress but I try to imagine the difference it might make to protecting American communities from wildfire by applying the equivalent of one year’s military aid to the Muslim Brotherhood, instead to purchasing more Erickson Air Cranes…but after all that would be construed by some, as switching corporate welfare from one crony capitalist to another. I would contend however, that the return would yield greater longevity. RS

        June 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm
        • Here’s why I don’t think it compares to crony capitalism…this would be the purchase of services that the government would either have to provide itself or procure from a private company to provide. Crony capitalism is, instead, the taking of government subsidies or loans or other taxpayer money not for services provided or equipment and material purchased for the benefit of the government but instead for the benefit of the corporation.

          I would actually prefer the contracting out of this service as opposed to the creation of a huge government fleet that would sit by idly and not used for other purposes when not fighting fires or providing services to the private sector. A government plane would be stove-piped into one agency, one mission, and never utilized for other purposes.

          June 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm
          • Practicing self restraint #

            I can’t disagree.

            My comments re: crony capitalism were cynical.
            (somewhat..I do have some suspicions regarding foreign aid that is restricted to the provision of military equipment only.)

            In response to contracting; the effectiveness is in the scope, development and administration of the contract specifications.

            June 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm
  4. Carol #

    “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” – Rahm Emanuel.
    So many people don’t realize the total devastation. You get it. I appreciate an insider’s view. You bring clarity and conciseness to vast information that is hard to navigate.
    And, if you are a tool, you are a hammer. Direct, effective and powerful.
    Thanks Mike.
    Carol

    June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm
  5. Disturbing/Encouraging Observations #

    Estimated cost of fighting Waldo Canyon fire so far: $3.2M
    (paid by taxpayers)

    Estimated replacement cost of structures/contents: $3.2M X 100
    (paid by citizens/taxpayers and insurance)

    Could it be that government has previously decided it is easier to let the fires catch and then react and let the recovery fall to the private sector.

    This implies the entangled relationship of government responsibility for consequences that begin/occur on government owned/regulated property v. Individuals responsibility to protect themselves and their property combined with the access limited government has to emergency resources.

    Ultimately, I am grateful for the military being requested/allowed to contribute their tremendous resource of civil engineering and construction capability. So far they talk like it’s limited to mitigation on the Air Force Academy. My hope is that it will also be applied to other affected publicly owned property.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm
  6. Josh #

    This is scary, I kind of agree with you on the president visiting, what a waste of time and resources, honestly spend that money on another few tankers to help the ground crews, we don’t need a political show to win this battle, we need resources. All this hot air isn’t going to put these fire out any faster. Hickenlooper can stop driving and flying around as well, do your pep rallies from the governors office, and stay out of the way of the people who are actually doing something to resolve this situation!!
    How about Mitt Romney and or Obama hold fundraiser for the victims of the fire, if you want to woo the voters of this swing state why don’t you start there? Spend that billion dollars helping people instead of slinging mud, maybe we wouldn’t all feel like we are going to throw up when we mark those ballots in November.

    Just a thought,

    June 28, 2012 at 1:43 am
  7. InCoRightNow #

    I feared that Obama coming to CO would have a direct effect on the air operations of the Waldo Canyon Fire, or any other fire in CO for that matter. People who don’t fly don’t understand the TFR (Temporary Flight Restrictions) that follow POTUS. In most cases this restriction can be a 20 to 80 mile TFR radius.

    As Mayor Steve Bach and Governor John Hickenlooper have been using Twitter as a tool I tweeted this message soon as I heard of Obama coming to CO.
    @mayorstevebach @hickforco Is ‪#POTUS‬ coming to ‪#COSprings‬ going to affect the air drops for the ‪#WaldoCanyonFire‬ as they may be in the TFR?

    I still haven’t received a direct reply from Steve Bach or Hickenlooper but I did get a reply from @KKRC that stated the following:
    At today’s 4PM press brief CSPolice Chief was confident ‪#POTUS‬ visiting would not affect resources.

    It also seems that NO media outlet is asking this question at any of the meetings about the fire?

    Now I am not asking for ANY direct details on the security of POTUS but I would like to know that his visit isn’t going to affect the air operations of the fires? Fire fighters depend on them air drops that can be a life saving tool. I don’t think the Secret Service is going to lift a TFR around POTUS so I don’t see how his visit WILL NOT endanger the fire fighting operations?

    June 28, 2012 at 10:17 am
  8. Josefina Dannis #

    It’s been some years but I’ll never forge the sadness I felt when they closed Langhorne Speedway. It was a one mile dirt (I think the last) which hosted USAC and ARDC Midgets, USAC Sprints and USAC Indy cars for years.I guess this generation isn’t ready for the dust in the teeth and lungs (and ass)…

    July 1, 2012 at 6:45 am

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