Potomac Chronicle

When It Comes to Wildfires, Collaboration Causes Confusion

United States Forest Service fire captain David Ruhl loved tackling big wildfires. So there was little surprise when he volunteered to leave his wife and two children behind in South Dakota’s Black Hills to help California during its monstrous fire season. In late July, while he was strategizing on how to fight a particularly nasty one in the Modoc National Forest, a wall of flames suddenly trapped him. Search teams found his body the next day.

Ruhl’s death was a tragic reminder of the enormous toll that the wildfires raging across the West have taken. But it was also a reminder of the remarkable partnerships that have emerged to fight them. Joining Ruhl were other feds, including expert interagency “hotshot” teams. They worked closely with local firefighters and Air Force C-130 air tankers. Private contractors provided pilots and more aircraft, ranging from small helicopters to giant air tankers. Coordinating everyone was Cal Fire, the state’s premier wildfire agency. It was a genuine mosaic of federalism, with the intricate boundaries lost amid the smoke of the worst fire season on record. READ MORE

State and Local Governments' Ticking Debt Bomb

As uncomfortable as it has been to watch, the unfolding drama in Greece has had one clear benefit: It has forced many other countries, including our own, to take a closer look at debt, as well as revenues, costs, growth rates, demographics and so on.

Fortunately the United States, compared to most European countries, doesn’t look too bad. Our economy has bounced back from the Great Recession far faster than others. Still, our national debt as a share of gross domestic product has leveled out at a rate somewhat higher than most European countries’. Between that and the unnaturally low level of current interest rates, an aging population and a likely pickup in health-care costs, economists are betting that the overall federal debt will resume its historic rise, leaving only about 5 percent of GDP available for all discretionary federal programs, including defense. READ MORE

How Hurricane Katrina Made the Feds More Powerful

If you marathoned the most recent season of “House of Cards” on Netflix, you know that one major plot line hinges on a federal disaster-relief law -- the Stafford Act of 1988, which authorizes the use of federal money to respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters. In the show, President Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, battles his foes in Congress over implementation of the law and just what constitutes a “disaster.”

It’s a testament not only to the arcane machinations that drive “House of Cards,” but also to the increasing importance of federal emergency funding. This month marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Retrospectives on the storm instantly bring back the searing images of a drowned city, the tales of unimaginable chaos inside the Superdome shelter and the misuse of police power in trying to regain control. READ MORE

Public Universities Have Forgotten Their Mission

I was stunned and saddened to learn six months ago or so that someone I deeply respect had in effect been forced from public office even though everyone seemed to agree that he was doing an outstanding job.

Tom Ross received one of Governing’s first Public Official of the Year awards in 1994, for work he had done on sentencing reform as a superior court judge in North Carolina. He went on in 2010 to become president of the state’s 17-campus university system, earning a reputation as an effective leader during some perilous times. READ MORE

Are Schools Overregulating What Students Eat?

Just by sending a frustrated tweet, a suburban Philadelphia mother set off a tsunami. “Insanity!” the woman fumed. “I have to sign a permission slip so my middle-schooler can eat an Oreo.” She was telling the truth, and her tweet inadvertently launched a national debate over whether a lawsuit-crazed society had finally gone too far.

The cookie in question was actually a Double Stuf Oreo. The permission slip came one day in March from Darlene Porter, a teacher at Welsh Valley Middle School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The purpose: an experiment on the earth’s tectonic plates. READ MORE