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
Unlike San Diego County — which does not fly its two copters at night — or Cal Fire, which despite Schwarzenegger’s praise has not yet outfitted its pilot crews with night goggles, special equipment and night training, San Diego city’s tiny one-helicopter crew was equipped with “night vision” capability. And pilots Chris Hartnell, Mike Moore and Eric Connell were willing to fly. “You can see so well [with night-vision goggles],” says Fennessy. “It’s like seeing during the day.”
It was a good thing too. On early Monday morning, he says, it was Copter 1 that spotted the Witch Fire heading toward San Diego’s city limits. By 11:30 a.m., thousands of evacuees began arriving at Qualcomm Stadium.
Jim Forbes of Escondido received a reverse-911 call and was told to leave. “I figured I didn’t own anything I couldn’t replace,” says Forbes, a former reporter for PC Week and Mac World. He gathered his long-haired Chihuahua and two cats and took off, seeing five houses already aflame just down the street. He spent the night at Calvin Christian Academy, where “people were sharing cell phones, sharing dog food and water bowls.” His home was saved, and he later joked, “I was glad they stopped the fire spreading to Hawaii.”
On Monday, crack Cal Fire air tanker pilots flew nonstop circuits from dawn to dusk, “bending the rules,” according to aviator Jim Barnes, and working past the hypercautious Cal Fire regulation that they must stop a half hour before sunset, when darkness is still more than an hour away. “We worked as long as we could,” says Barnes.
By that day, however, public criticism had already begun, just as in 2003, that little air power was evident in the skies — and politicians began to blame the wind. But wind was not always the key problem in several huge firefights. Near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, where the Grass Valley Fire erupted before dawn on Monday, Tim Sappok, assistant county fire chief, says one of the biggest problems was plumes of acrid black and brown smoke that grounded a Cal Fire-leased DC-10 at a bad time. Later, the plane made 27 missions throughout Southern California.
Sappok was pleased with the air response, mostly from the U.S. Fire Service, but said, “We always wish we had more, and sooner, but aircraft is just one of the songs on our iPod .?.?. You always want to have aircraft and you want them there sooner and you want more.”
But by Tuesday, Orange County joined the angry debate over air power. There, an arson fire set Sunday evening near Silverado Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads quickly spread, and the Orange County Fire Authority had to initially rely on a ground crew. Two Fire Authority helicopters could not combat the massive, 32-square-mile blaze because they are not equipped to fight after sunset. And unlike Los Angeles County, Orange County depends on other agencies including the state to pick up its slack during wildfires. Says Dan Young of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, who attacked Campbell and Spitzer for opposing the fire-equipment-funding Measure D, “The only resources you can control are your own.”
Orange County Fire Authority’s Prather criticized the state’s initial air response, saying the fire had consumed more than 18,000 acres before the first aircraft arrived. In a widely quoted criticism, he added, “We were here in 2003 .?.?. It is an absolute fact, had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire.” And, he angrily dismissed the state’s assurances that the response had dramatically improved from 2003, saying, “Yadda, yadda, yadda. All I know is, I had 12 firefighters deploy their shelters yesterday, and they shouldn’t have had to do that.”
Prather was joined by Assemblyman Spitzer, Supervisor Campbell and San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, all repeating the claim that helicopters and airplanes that could have dumped water and retardant in the early stages of the fires were nowhere to be found.
At about the same time, Schwarzenegger held a Tuesday-evening press conference in Santa Clarita flanked by State Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, Los Angeles County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Mike Freeman. Politically, it was the perfect move — he surrounded himself with winners from the one county that handled the fires with aplomb. After several rounds of mutual back-slapping, Schwarzenegger addressed a journalist’s question about Spitzer’s comments that the state has failed to implement recommendations put forth by the blue-ribbon committee.
“Well, I respect Assemblymember Spitzer very much,” the governor said, “but I happen to disagree with him on that.”
Schwarzenegger later added, “I have heard, for instance, stories today that they have more than 90 aircraft that are available, but not all of them can fly because of the wind conditions. So for someone to complain about aircraft not being available, I think is ridiculous, because aircraft are available, but we have to wait for the right weather conditions.”
The next day, Wednesday, Schwarzenegger’s PR team shifted into overdrive, sending the media 25 press alerts, most of which emphasized what a great job the government was doing — an overkill that prompted the Daily News to editorialize that his “spin doctoring serves to cheapen” those things that were being done right.