San Diego Union Tribune

October 26, 2007

Aerial response delays blamed on Santa Ana winds, bad timing

State, federal officials give timeline of events


With infernos 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 ready.

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 helicopters.

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 Press.

“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.”

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