As state forestry officials predict an unusually harsh fire season this summer, the California National Guard says equipment shortages could hinder the guard's response to a large-scale disaster.
A dearth of equipment such as trucks and radios -- caused in part by the war in Iraq -- has state military officials worried they would be slow in providing help in the event of a major fire, earthquake or terrorist attack.
The readiness of the Guard has been described as a national problem and has become a political liability for the Bush administration, which came under fire this week when the governor of Kansas complained that the National Guard response to a devastating tornado in her state was inadequate. National Guard readiness has become a growing concern as the Guard has taken on extra responsibilities caused by the Iraq war and the increased threat of terrorism.
In California, half of the equipment the National Guard needs is not in the state, either because it is deployed in Iraq or other parts of the world or because it hasn't been funded, according to Lt. Col. John Siepmann. While the Guard is in good shape to handle small-scale incidents, "our concern is a catastrophic event,'' he said.
"You would see a less effective response (to a major incident),'' he said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also acknowledged the National Guard's equipment woes and attributed them to the war. National Guard policy has required that much of the equipment that goes with units to Iraq stays there.
"A lot of equipment has gone to Iraq, and it doesn't come back when the troops come back,'' Schwarzenegger said Thursday at a news conference in Sacramento, where he was asked about the National Guard. "So this is one thing we have been talking about, how do we get this equipment back as quickly as possible in case we need it, and we also need it for training.''
Schwarzenegger and other state officials say they are confident the Guard could handle most emergencies, however, noting that about 2,500 guard personnel are deployed overseas out of a force of more than 20,000.
"We are ready to respond, and we will respond to anything,'' Siepmann said, noting that problems would arise only in the case of a major problem on par with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
And the National Guard is not the only agency charged with dealing with major emergencies: Bill Maile, a spokesman for the governor, noted the state had a well-choreographed emergency management system tying together local jurisdictions and state agencies like the Office of Emergency Services.
The National Guard performs a wide range of activities during emergencies, such as helping to fight fires, evacuating residents and providing security and supplies.
Siepmann said the Guard's aerial equipment that is used to fight fires, such as C-130 airplanes and CH-47 helicopters, was in good shape. But officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have noted that a dry winter could lead to a particularly bad fire season.
Two fires in Southern California this week have prompted concerns that the season is starting unusually early.
The California National Guard is missing about $1 billion worth of equipment of all types, according to a Guard listing provided to The Chronicle. Much of the equipment would be useful in handling events like electricity blackouts, earthquakes or other emergencies.
For example, guidelines suggest the Guard should have 39 diesel generators on hand, but it has none. Guidelines suggest having 1,410 of a certain type of Global Positioning Satellite device; the Guard has none of those.
Some of the equipment is in Iraq, Afghanistan or other parts of the world -- 209 vehicles, including 110 humvees and 63 military trucks that could be used to transport troops or supplies, are out of the state. The Guard has only 62 percent of the vehicles it believes it needs in California.
Other equipment has not been funded by the federal government, which provides virtually all of the National Guard's budget.
Some equipment and about 1,400 California National Guard personnel are deployed along the Mexican border as part of a directive by President Bush to help bolster border security, but Siepmann said those troops could be quickly redeployed around the state if needed.
Bush was assailed this week by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, who said the National Guard in her state was limited in its response to a tornado last Friday that flattened the town of Greensburg and killed at least 11 people. Sebelius said the state's military was missing trucks, bulldozers and helicopters that could have helped secure the town and search for survivors.
The White House insisted it had provided Kansas with all of the supplies it requested.
But around the country, concern is growing about the National Guard's ability to handle emergencies.
The head of the National Guard told a congressional committee in March that Army National Guard units have on average just 40 percent of their required equipment on hand and that bolstering supplies to a proper level would require an extra $40 billion. And an independent commission created by Congress to study the National Guard called the equipment shortage unacceptable in a report this year.
The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves noted the new responsibilities imposed on the Guard since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Iraq war have led to a utilization of National Guard personnel and equipment that "is not sustainable over time.''
The overuse of the National Guard overseas and limited federal funding for equipment to be used in the country could lead to a situation in California similar to the one in Kansas, said state Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, who is chairman of a legislative committee on emergency services and homeland security.
"These are policies that are putting California residents in jeopardy,'' said Nava, who is planning hearings on Guard readiness this summer.
California National Guard
-- Current strength: 20,059
-- On federal active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere: 2,500 (approximate)
-- Killed in action: 23 (all in Iraq)
-- Serving on the Mexican border: 1,400
-- Available for state missions: 16,000
The problem with having a Republican governor with a Republican in the White House is that Schwarzenegger is unlikely to push Bush or embarrass him into doing the right thing for Californians. And so we wait for some state of emergency, when the National Guard and equipment that we've paid for for isn't here to help. And shame both Schwarzenegger and Bush.