San Diego Union Tribune

November 3, 2007

Why aerial attack didn't get off ground as planned

Dozens of aircraft were deployed but hampered by wind

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

 
bullet Grounded military helicopters blamed on lack of 'spotters'

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.


 

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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 wildfires.

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 air power?

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 50 mph.

“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 County.

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 available.

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 drops.

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.”

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