By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It was hard not to compare the frustrating events in San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties last week to what unfolded at the windswept fire scene in Malibu. In Los Angeles, county and city officials have created a far better-prepared pilot force than probably any jurisdiction in California — hardcore fliers who know every canyon, are adept at flying at night and have the equipment to do so, and utilize a local air fleet that does not rely on the bureaucratic Cal Fire.
Amid howling Santa Ana winds, Los Angeles County pilots worked through Monday night on multiple blazes, at the very time when Cal Fire and federal pilots grounded themselves in San Diego and San Bernardino County in part due to those departments’ aversion to possible crashes — a stance observers say grew more strict after crashes of firefighting air tankers in California in 2002 and 2005.
Back and forth recriminations began to fly. In Orange County, critics pointed out that Assemblyman Todd Spitzer and Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell, who last week slammed the lack of air support, had themselves fought successfully to stop Measure D — which could have quickly paid for two more helicopters for Orange County firefighters. In San Diego, in the months after the Cedar and Paradise fires of 2003 destroyed 2,400 homes and killed 18, critics noted that taxpayers twice refused to approve a hotel tax — a tax largely on outsiders — that would have upgraded that area’s fire protection.
Tony Morris, an advocate of greater air support who runs the nonprofit Wildfire Research Network, recalls how, after the Cedar Fire disaster, he met with an aide to Dianne Jacob, a San Diego County supervisor, who told Morris that the county, which, unlike the city of San Diego, has no fire department and relies in part on an old-fashioned volunteer firefighters system, had no plan to fund a modern fire department. “They’re going to have to do something,” Morris says. “They’re too vulnerable.”
Perhaps more vulnerable than anyone imagined. According to forest ecologist Volker Radeloff of the University of Wisconsin– Madison, “5 million California homes are in the WUI — and last week 125,000 of those homes were within one mile of the fire.”
While the media focused on the upbeat story of the successful reverse-911 in dramatically reducing loss of life, the greater truth seemed to be this: California didn’t learn the lessons of 2003 very well, leaving gaping holes in its system. The fire season is only half over, California is in a nasty drought, and weather experts say we could have more terrible Santa Ana winds — which, despite media hype, did not break records last week.
ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 21, L.A. County firefighters were returning to Station 125 on Las Virgenes Road near the 101 freeway after a false alarm at a house off of Malibu Colony Drive when another call came in at 4:56 a.m. — a brush fire in twisting, parched, overgrown Malibu Canyon near the Malibu Canyon tunnel just northwest of the old Sheriff’s Honor Rancho turnoff.
The firefighters — suspecting 14,000-volt lines had snapped from intense winds, sparking the blaze — called in a “second-alarm brush response” for five additional fire engines. And with the super-dry red flag conditions, humidity below 15 percent and winds gusting to 40 miles per hour (the ragged edge in flying, when risk escalates dramatically), they reached out to the state’s mutual-aid system, calling in backup from Ventura, Orange and Riverside counties, Beverly Hills and Redondo Beach and others, seeking another 45 fire engines.
At 5 a.m. Tony Marrone, chief of air ops with the L.A. County Fire Department, sent one of the fleet’s 10 helicopters to suss out the scene. The heliport landing at Pepperdine University was smoked out, so they used Malibu Creek State Park to dispatch an entire fleet including the county’s helitanker and two huge Super Scoopers.
“We called the Super Scoopers and woke them up at 5:15 at the Burbank Holiday Inn,” says Marrone. “I told them ‘Get ready. We have to go!’?” The scoopers, based at Van Nuys Airport, were soon aloft, piloted by French-Canadian experts who live in Southern California during the fire season. Even with the high winds, Los Angeles “never had to ground the aircraft,” says Marrone.
These first moments are what fire experts call the “initial attack” mode, in which helicopters with fire-suppression crews are followed by water and retardant drops that support ground crews and bulldozers. “The real issue is in the first hours of the fire,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “If you want to make a difference and you have a fighting chance till your ground personnel gets in, you need an overwhelming response, and that takes aircraft, and it has to be your aircraft.”
Although Cal Fire says it can respond almost anywhere within 20 minutes, the time lost in contacting Cal Fire, as other jurisdictions were doing back in 2003 and continue to do today, means “the state [has] to put the call out and valuable time has passed by,” Yaroslavsky says.