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
By first light, city and county helicopters were dropping water on flames spreading in two directions: toward Pepperdine and the nearby Hughes Research Laboratory, and toward multimillion-dollar homes along “Billionaires’ Beach” in Carbon Beach and the exclusive Serra Estates. Also in the path of the flames was a historic monastery and the $17 million Castle Kashan, a private home containing a supposedly priceless collection of Elvis memorabilia.
By 7 a.m., two helitankers and two Super Scoopers with 1,600-gallon capacity were dropping retardant and water. In dramatic swoops, the helitankers refilled in the Pacific Ocean, while the Super Scoopers used more placid Lake Sherwood. Meanwhile, students at Pepperdine were moved to the cafeteria and given gauze masks as homeowners were evacuated. Among them: Kelsey Grammer and Sally Field, and 18 patients at Promises, the rehab center for stars like Lindsay Lohan.
By 1 p.m., county firefighters were tackling a fire near Agua Dulce, assisting U.S. Forest Service firefighters near Castaic and fighting a fire near Stevenson Ranch. “We were stretched. We were asking for help,” says Los Angeles County fire investigator Sam Padilla.
Battling blazes in the rough Santa Monica Mountains isn’t new to Los Angeles firefighters. Fourteen years ago, the Old Topanga Fire raced to the Pacific Ocean, gutting 300 Malibu homes, killing three and blackening 17,000 acres — and demonstrating how the canyons that spill out near Pacific Coast Highway can act as treacherous funnels for superheated air and flames.
Firefighters put down last week’s blaze after it scorched just 4,565 acres. Unlike other parts of the state, “We didn’t have to ground the planes,” says Sam Padilla. “We have some of the best-experienced pilots in the world, and they will fly in any conditions.”
In January 2004, Cal Fire official Michael Padilla told the blue-ribbon commission that local agencies — especially San Diego — needed to create an “initial attack” program focused on air power, “like L.A. County and what they do. Look at L.A. city and what they’ve got.”
That never happened.
SAN DIEGO’S TRAGIC EXPERIENCE last week was dramatically different from events in Malibu. Four and a half hours after the Canyon Fire in Malibu started, a blaze of unknown origin was spotted at Harris Ranch Road near Potrero, 45 miles east of San Diego. According to a Cal Fire official, ground and air crews were immediately dispatched to the so-called Harris Fire at 9:30 a.m.
“We were out the door and up in the air in a matter of minutes,” says Jim Barnes, an air tanker pilot and 25-year Cal Fire veteran. Barnes flew an aircraft capable of dropping 1,200 gallons of water. “We encountered severe turbulence right off,” says Barnes. “It happened 10 times a minute.”
He completed four or five “circuits,” or water drops, even as a few Cal Fire planes were diverted to Malibu’s Canyon Fire. According to press reports, more than 300 firefighters battled the Harris Fire on the ground and from the air, with five air tankers, five helicopters and 45 engines. But just three hours later, the Witch Fire broke out in north San Diego County near Santa Ysabel. The county government relies on a mishmash of volunteer and professional firefighters, and the area was quickly overtaken by a massive inferno that ate up acreage as two air tankers, 60 fire engines and 350 firefighters responded. Four more air tankers attempted to drop water, Barnes says, but “they just couldn’t make it.”
Sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., he says, Cal Fire air tanker pilots grounded themselves. While many L.A. pilots view 40 mph winds as pushing it, Cal Fire often cites as its limit 35 mph — a speed that the Santa Ana winds often exceed. But, “The pilots make the call,” explains Barnes, noting that “smoke” and “poor visibility” were the deciding factors in flying back to base in Ramona. “If you crash an airplane,” says the pilot, “it’s just another fire for someone to deal with.”
As Cal Fire air tankers sat on the tarmac for two hours, the Witch Fire built in size and strength. For San Diego city’s Fire-Rescue Department Deputy Chief Brian Fennessy, the situation brought back bad memories: “There just wasn’t enough equipment to go around,” says Fennessy, who heads the Special Operations Division and runs the three-man single-helicopter crew for the city.
Although the massive Santa Ana winds that so preoccupied Schwarzenegger and other politicians were a “significant factor,” Fennessy says, the midafternoon Sunday wind currents in the Witch Fire “weren’t at full speed yet.” It was not until well after Cal Fire grounded itself that the Santa Anas reached 40 to 60 mph, with gusts up to 80 mph, later that evening, Fennessy says. That fact was substantiated by the National Weather Service and Accuweather, the world’s largest private weather service.
“It was a big event,” says JPL climatologist Patzert, but the winds were “not unprecedented.” He adds, “This was not the Santa Ana of the century.”
That left San Diego Fire-Rescue’s locally operated Copter 1 alone as it dropped its 375-gallon loads on the Witch Fire that night. The busy Bell 212-HP copter transported a burned state firefighter and a critically injured teenager whose father was killed, and identified the direction of the blaze, zipping through gusts of more than 60 mph, slipping under huge smoke columns and flying through darkness. According to Fennessy, “Copter 1 was the only aircraft in the air that night and [early Monday] morning.”