Air Inferiority 

Is “Run!” the new strategy against firestorms on California's urban fringe?

Wednesday, Oct 31 2007


Patrick Range McDonald,

Christine Pelisek

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LAST WEEK, AS NEARLY ONE-QUARTER of California’s length blazed, the state’s residents were treated to an eerie replay of the October 2003 firestorm that wiped out 3,631 homes and killed 24. From the self-congratulations of big pols to finger pointing over a lack of air support, one of the most troubling aspects of the tragedy — despite the claims of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — was how little government has changed in response to the lessons of 2003.

With 1,155 homes in cinders on October 24, a cheery Schwarzenegger had gathered with politicians to let Californians know that, “Everything has been, so far, going really well.” In fact, much was not going well. Although communication between agencies appeared to be going more smoothly than during the mishandled Cedar Fire disaster, and lives had clearly been saved by a reverse-911 evacuation system, a political blaze was getting under way.

TheNew York Times reported the feds had accused Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, of failing in the first critical days to seek federal firefighters and air tankers. Furious San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter sparred with Cal Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva over the state’s view that “fire spotters” had to accompany military aircraft, and hours passed before the feud was resolved. In Orange County, Fire Chief Chip Prather bitterly pointed to a lack of air support, state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer accused a blue-ribbon commission of punting rather than building up the air fleet, and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher went on KNX News Radio to accuse the Department of Defense of dawdling on adapting C-130 aircraft for fire-fighting.

Yet all week, powerful politicos downplayed the need for more aircraft, including the governor himself. Christine Kehoe of San Diego, the Legislature’s point woman on wildfire response, insisted that a dramatic buildup in air support was not the post-2003 answer to saving vast tracts of wildland-adjacent housing, and accused some critics of “grandstanding.”

“We are spending as much as we possibly can on aircraft,” Kehoe insisted to the L.A. Weekly. Schwarzenegger went even further, complaining, “For someone to complain about aircraft not being available, I think is ridiculous.”

Schwarzenegger, Cal Fire bureaucrats and pilots and many politicians insisted the culprit was not equipment shortages, but the wind. In interview after interview, officials said the Santa Ana winds were often too stiff to use available aircraft, even during the critical “initial attack” phase in which tankers and helicopters can drench fires while the slower-moving ground crews and fire engines race in to respond.

Tension over the issue was extreme. In San Diego County, a near-shouting match broke out between news reporters and a San Diego County supervisor after Cal Fire officials resisted divulging the actual number of aircraft currently aloft over the San Diego County fires. Those who blamed the wind often did so without actually knowing conditions in the specific ravines and hills left without air support for hours at a time, such as in the 200,000-acre Witch megafire that destroyed 1,040 homes near San Diego, the persistent 28,500-acre Santiago Canyon Fire in Orange County and the fast-moving Slide and Grass Valley fires that wiped out communities near Lake Arrowhead and Green Valley Lake.

The wind was clearly a factor. But frequently last week it became an excuse to paper over looming problems: a shortage of helicopters and tankers; continuing mis-communication between counties, the state and the feds; and, perhaps most importantly, Cal Fire’s and the fed’s reluctance to fly after dusk or during high winds — conditions in which other pilots often do agree to fly.

Testimony in the 2003-’04 state blue-ribbon hearings focused on, among other things, the need for a much-improved air fleet to fight fires in California’s so-called Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI, where a staggering 5 million homes have been erected. Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman insisted, “It’s going to probably take some extraordinary actions and some extraordinary recommendations from this commission in order to deal with future fire sieges.”

Yet the blue-ribbon commission, under pressure from then-director of Cal Fire Andrea Tuttle, and retired state senator and commission chairman Bill Campbell of Hacienda Heights, failed to pass fiscal recommendations to dramatically upgrade the air fleet, putting forth a series of incremental reforms. Very few were related to air support, which got a modest nod in “State Recommendation 5,” to fix and replace Huey helicopters with “extreme structural fatigue,” some of which saw duty in Vietnam. The commission did, however, eagerly approve this: a recommendation to spend money on PR to persuade the public not to overanticipate or overdemand air support during the next fire disaster.

Since 2003, San Diego County has built a helicopter air fleet of just two aircraft. And the city of San Diego has only “Copter 1.” Both have put money instead into a far less costly reverse-911 system that kicks in largely once a fire is threatening and is heading for homes. Michael Archer, a columnist for www.military.com who weighs in on ways to improve aerial support such as by using more effective gel retardants, says, “You want to kill the fire, not have to run away from it. Running is the new strategy?”

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