It was shortly before 10 a.m. Oct. 21 when James Barnes
flew his Grumman S-2 Tracker out of Ramona Airport and
headed toward the worrisome Harris blaze, which had been
spotted about half an hour earlier.
With four other air tankers nearby, Barnes made five
trips between the airport and the wildfire – dropping
5,000 gallons of fire retardant – before high winds and
smoky conditions grounded his plane and other aircraft for
about three hours, after which they were airborne again.
That same day, some San Diego officials began
complaining of a lack of air power working the blazes
flaring up around the county.
Flight logs and pilot interviews indicate that state
and federal officials positioned at least 45 firefighting
helicopters and planes in Southern California by the time
fires had broken out from the border up through Los
Angeles County. Several air tankers spent the day fighting
San Diego County fires.
Much of the focus on aerial firefighting efforts has
centered on whether military helicopters and aircraft were
delayed by bureaucratic problems from making drops. But
the first pilots in the air believe the delayed military
aircraft may not have done much good on that first day.
“With the winds blowing as hard as they were, more
aircraft would not have prevented the fires from growing
at the rate they did,” said Michael Venable, a
state-contracted pilot whose air tanker was first on the
scene of the Witch Creek blaze, which sprang up shortly
after the Harris fire.
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts complained that
day that there was a lack of air support. Other critics
have said the state and federal governments should have
pre-positioned more aircraft in the area given the weather
and wind conditions that made the region ripe for
Of the 45 aircraft doing fire duty, 13 were state-owned
and 32 – 11 heavy air tankers, 14 heli-tankers and seven
helicopters – were nonmilitary planes and helicopters
controlled by the U.S. Forest Service. They were mostly
privately owned aircraft on contract to the California
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or to the
Forest Service. Some were already in California; some flew
in from jobs out of state.
|At issue: enough
Although at least 45 firefighting aircraft were
deployed when wildfires broke out across Southern
California on Oct. 21, debate continues about why
military craft were delayed in joining the fight
and whether they would have made a difference.
Would have helped: Local officials and
members of Congress say the state's failure to
provide enough fire “spotters” for military
helicopters and other bureaucratic problems kept
valuable resources sidelined when they could have
been in the air, at least some of the time.
Wouldn't have helped: Some state and
federal officials and some pilots say additional
aircraft wouldn't have made a difference on the
first crucial day because of the ferocity of the
fires and the winds, which temporarily grounded
some aircraft and limited their effectiveness when
in the air.
Four of the Cal Fire tankers, including Barnes', had
been sent to Southern California as reinforcements days
before the fires started.
Barnes' tanker was fueled, loaded with retardant and
cleared for flight an hour before the first fire bell rang
that first morning, indicating the Harris fire had been
sighted near Potrero, north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Five state air tankers – three from Ramona and two from
Hemet – and a federal P-3 tanker fought the Harris and
Witch Creek fires most of that day, with the Ramona planes
grounded for about three hours at midday. They were
airborne again that afternoon, despite winds that blew at
“We bent every rule in the book to continue operating,”
said Barnes, a contract pilot.
Because the state has a mutual-aid agreement with the
Navy Reserve, some Navy helicopters were sent to fight
fires in the county Oct. 22.
It is unclear how many state copters flew Oct. 21, but
Barnes said he saw “a lot” in the air.
Flight times were not available from the state for both
fires, but Barnes and Venable said each of the state
tankers flew more than five hours that first day.
By the end of the first day of fires, federal aircraft
had spent 78 hours fighting the blazes, according to
flight logs. By the end of the second day, 13 more federal
aircraft had joined the battle and had logged an
additional 68 hours. It is unclear precisely where they
fought – they were attacking other Southern California
fires as well – but Barnes said federal aircraft,
including the P-3 tanker, assisted him in San Diego
Roberts said he could not get reliable status reports
on aircraft until the third day of the wildfires.
“None of that information was available to us the first
couple of days,” the supervisor said. “(Cal Fire
officials) kept telling us Ramona and Hemet (airports)
were not able to get anybody up.”
San Diego city fire officials said that when they
requested more assistance – in the air and on the ground –
they were told by Cal Fire that nothing more was
Members of Congress, including Reps. Duncan Hunter,
R-Alpine, and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, said
red tape kept many military aircraft from flying, not
heavy winds, as state and federal officials have
suggested. They say nearly two dozen water-dropping
helicopters and two massive cargo planes sat idly by in
Southern California – in part because of state rules
requiring that all firefighting helicopters be accompanied
by “fire spotters” who coordinate water or retardant
Also, National Guard firefighting aircraft were delayed
partly because of a 24-hour advance call-up notice, which
is standard protocol. When those aircraft were ready to
fly in late morning Oct. 22 – ahead of the 24-hour period
but nearly a day behind the start of the fires – they were
grounded because of wind.
Barnes and Venable say that even if they had had those
reinforcements, it probably would have done little to
control the fires that first day.
“The situation was so overwhelming that no amount of
air power was going to stop it,” Barnes said.
But critics say more aircraft would have helped.
Hunter said six military C-130 planes ordered on the
second day of the blazes couldn't fly until two days
later, in part because they weren't equipped with tanks to
carry fire retardant. Hunter, a Republican presidential
candidate, says he persuaded military officials to deliver
units from Wyoming, Colorado and North Carolina.
Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper says the military planes
were needed “right away because of their enormous
firefighting and aerial capability.”
Mark Rey, an undersecretary with the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, said that
when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first ordered the C-130s,
there was no shortage of firefighting planes or
helicopters in Southern California.
“Notwithstanding the congressman's intimate
participation in the firefighting, the bottom line is
there was no asset limitation,” Rey said, referring to
Hunter. “There were (similar) planes available, but they
could not fly because of the wind.”