While Colorado burns, conservatives have looked for ways to blame it on President Obama.
Some of the same people who have bashed the president as a big government, big spending liberal now say a wildfire that destroyed hundreds of homes in the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs can be blamed on the president because he has been too slow to spend money to beef up the federal fleet of air tankers.
The meme began more than a week ago when pundit Michelle Malkin, who lives in Colorado Springs, wrote a piece for the National Review Online titled “Obama Bureaucrats Are Fueling Wildfires.”
“The Obama administration’s neglect of the federal government’s aerial-tanker fleet raises acrid questions about its core public-safety priorities,” she wrote.
Malkin noted the number of fire-fighting air tankers in the national fleet had dropped from 44 a decade ago to nine today. The fact that the administration killed a contract last year to to build more tankers, she wrote, had put a manufacturing company out of business. A bill the president signed earlier this month to spend $24 million for new planes came too late to stop the spread of the fires now.
“[T]he money won’t come until next year, and the dog-and-pony rescue moves will not result in any immediate relief,” Malkin wrote. The delays were unacceptable, she concluded. “Where there’s smoke swirling over Team Obama, there are usually flames of incompetence, cronyism, and ideological zealotry.”
The criticism caught on in some circles. Wayne Laugesen, the conservative editorial page editor for the Colorado Springs Gazette, linked to Malkin’s post this week in his own piece titled “Obama shrunk aerial firefighting fleet.” A writer with PJ Media mentioned the Gazette opinion in a blog post under the headline “Colorado Burns. Are Obama’s Environmental and Defense Policies to Blame?”
The suggestion even made its way to a news conference on Wednesday with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who was answering questions about multiple fires burning in the state. The Denver Post reported that a question about conservatives blaming the president for the size of the air fleet set the governor off.
“Were these the same conservatives that were so worried about the Obama administration spending too much money, or were these different conservatives?” Hickenlooper said.
The line of questioning, he added, was inappropriate with more than 30,000 people forced to evacuate their homes.
Malkin didn’t mention where she got some of the figures that appeared in her piece, but many of them appeared just a few days earlier in an exhaustive Denver Post story that examined the complicated debate over what to do about the nation’s air tanker fleet.
The story said the tankers often have a limited impact on large wildfires and are designed to slow the spread of smaller fires. It also said officials with the U.S. Forest Service, which runs the fleet, believe the number of aircraft they already have is sufficient given the helicopters and smaller planes they use.
The reporting follows a 2008 investigation by the Los Angeles Times that revealed how the air tankers often do little to quell big fires but cost lots of money and tend to look good on TV. Fire officials told the newspaper they nicknamed the air missions “CNN drops.”
While investigators try to find the real cause of the Waldo Canyon fire, the fact remains that it has become a massive tragedy for Colorado Springs. Hundreds of houses in the city burned to the ground in recent days and tens of thousands of people were still barred from returning home under standing evacuation orders. President Obama is planning to visit the scene to view the damage later today.
When Malkin’s piece was published by the National Review last week, the wildfire was still making its way toward Colorado Springs. Days later, Malkin revealed on her own blog that she and her family were among those being forced to evacuate. As of Thursday, they were still unable to go back.
“Our house remains in one of the most threatened areas of the city, but it is still standing for now,” she wrote. “Please pray for Colorado, and especially the firefighters, pilots, emergency personnel, and support staff on the front lines battling the Waldo Canyon fire and all the other fires raging across the West.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com