marching across Southern California, it probably seemed
like an eternity from the time local officials pleaded for
aerial reinforcements Sunday to when the aircraft were
By then, they couldn't fly.
Put on the defensive, top state and federal officials
yesterday blamed a combination of dangerous, 100-mph winds
and “luck of the draw” timing for delaying a major,
immediate counterattack with water-carrying planes and
They also offered a timeline of events – one that may
provide an argument for major reforms in the protocol of
who can deploy aircraft and how soon.
The delay has raised troubling questions over why some
crews and planes weren't ready to fly at a moment's
notice, despite weeks of warnings that a record dry spell
and approaching Santa Ana winds would turn much of the
region into a tinderbox.
In fire-prone California, aerial defenses are vital in
slowing a blaze's onslaught. But there's not one single
agency charged with overseeing deployment. The federal
government, the state and local jurisdictions all own
firefighting planes and helicopters. The hodgepodge of
supervisors makes a rapid and broad response cumbersome.
And California isn't the only state under threat,
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an
interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune
editorial board yesterday.
Federal aircraft weren't ordered to the region weeks
ago – as conditions grew ripe for wildfires – because they
must be prepared to assist other areas of the United
States, Chertoff said.
“The mere fact that there's a danger of fire does not
mean we move all federal resources to one place,” he said.
But problems have plagued some federal efforts to
improve fleets. The National Guard's newer C-130 cargo
planes, among the most powerful potential aerial
firefighting weapons, were never outfitted to carry
thousands of gallons of fire retardant, something that was
promised four years ago, according to The Associated
“The weight of bureaucracy kept these planes from
flying, not the heavy winds,” U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher,
R-Huntington Beach, told the AP. “When you look at what's
happened, it's disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging
that's put tens of thousands of people in danger.”
A handful of older National Guard C-130s from out of
state were summoned, but none saw action until Wednesday.
Top state fire officials pointed out yesterday that the
process of deploying aircraft is neither simple nor –
apparently – speedy.
Once local officials determine that a fire has grown
beyond their capabilities, the state is called for help.
The state Office of Emergency Services then files a
mission request with the California National Guard.
That occurred at 4:33 p.m. Sunday.
But the request forwarded by state officials asked for
deployment by 4:31 p.m. Monday – nearly 24 hours after the
paperwork was filed. Two Navy firefighting helicopters
were given permission to fly about noon Monday.
Ground crews readied the aircraft while part-time
pilots left their jobs and families to respond. State fire
spotters – required to be on planes for safety reasons –
were called in. However, by the time flight crews arrived
and had taken a mandatory eight-hour rest, the notorious
Santa Ana winds had begun to whip faster.
Three flight crews were ready to go by 11:37 a.m.
Monday. The first two fire spotters arrived at 12:30 p.m.
Five minutes later – at 12:35 p.m. Monday – the order
came to ground all aircraft.
“We met the timeline,” said William Wade, adjutant
general of the California National Guard. But the
well-rested, ready-to-fly crews were idled by the winds.
“I will stand by our response,” Wade said.
A similar dispute erupted Tuesday over delays in
sending Marine Corps helicopters to fight the fires.
Chertoff said the timing of the worst of the Santa Ana
windstorms stymied federal aerial efforts.
He said that as many as 30 aircraft were ready to go
Monday and Tuesday, but that even if they had gotten up in
the air, the “flying conditions did not allow effective
use of retardant.”