By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Yet even as the winds began to back off, eyewitness accounts persisted of aircraft that never showed. From a high point on his ranch, blogger Stuart O’Neill at The Democratic Daily watched a finger of the Santiago Fire sweep across obscure ravines and ridges at dawn on Wednesday. He wrote: “I watch the fire crawl over the top of a ridge line that threatens the community of Hamilton Trail. There was no air support. The fire .?.?. could have been effectively attacked by air tankers. Orange County again had no, or too few, air tankers to make the effort.”
Schwarzenegger’s spin machine appeared to engulf Orange County Fire Chief Prather, who stood at a morning press conference a few hours later with Schwarzenegger and praised him for “inspiring” him. When a journalist reminded Prather of his criticisms just 24 hours earlier, Prather offered an almost gymnastically convoluted explanation: “My remarks yesterday didn’t have to do with yesterday,” he said. Rather, he had been referring to “developing a long-term strategy” for future disasters.
But Spitzer told the Weekly, “Prather changed because he got a lot of heat. There’s a lot of pressure coming down. A lot. The politics of it is that nobody wants to be criticizing the response in a massive disaster. Present a united front. You’re going to see a lot of people not speaking up.”
THE DIVISIONS SERVED TO HIGHLIGHT the fact that fire officials and politicians in California have yet to agree on where best to spend the money to avert tragedies like those last week. On one side are officials who say air support is overrated, and is too dependent on weather. On the other side are officials, including L.A. County’s Freeman, who told the blue-ribbon commission of the need for a significant air fleet to quell fires in an era of “WUI” blazes — megafires in the wildland-urban interfaces.
Certainly the public was demanding air support, with AM radio talk jocks and TV nightly news stations airing story after story of angry citizens watching the skies for absent helitankers. On the San Diego Union-Tribune Web site, an angry, tooth-and-nail debate over the lack of air power generated 47 pages of online commentary. One reader commented, “Too risky to fly? Give me a break. Thousands of boots on the ground were risking their lives. Now comes the CYA.”
California has made progress since 2003, but those improvements have been largely incremental. Costs are steep — a Fire Hawk helicopter can run $17 million, and a Bell 412 costs $10 million. A 120-day lease of an Erickson Air-Crane helitanker costs $2.5 million. L.A. County leases two super scoopers for four months annually — for $2.5 million.
Cal Fire did spend money refitting its ?S-2A airtankers in 2005 with powerful turbo-prop engines that can carry a larger retardant payload. But in the years after 2003, Schwarzenegger was on a budget-cutting mission to reduce the Gray Davis–era $25 billion deficit. In Sacramento, a massive battle over the crumbs broke out in the spring of 2004, at virtually the same time that Andrea Tuttle — a marine ecologist with no background in firefighting, who former Governor Davis appointed to oversee Cal Fire, the third-largest firefighting force in the U.S. — pooh-poohed the debate over air support.
Tuttle and Cal Fire had come under brutal criticism in 2003 for botching key decisions during the Cedar Fire, including dithering over a deal struck by Congressman Hunter in which Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would send huge C-130 aircraft to make drops. In the days that passed while Tuttle thought over the federal offer, Hunter’s home burned to the ground — like hundreds of others.
Stung by the slams she endured, Tuttle used the blue-ribbon commission forum to lecture the California public over its “misguided .?.?. assumption that the fire is not being fought unless planes are in the air,” and downplayed the effectiveness of air drops, citing everything from dangerous high winds to retardant that can blow away.
Instead, she trumpeted her own “conversation with San Diego over the need for an additional helicopter” — an exceedingly modest idea for the huge region.
The blue-ribbon hearings set up by Davis before he was ousted had begun with gusto and big ideas in November 2003. They wrapped up with a whimper in March 2004. One casualty was the notion that California should dramatically boost its local and regional air fleet. One recommendation — “Multi-Jurisdictional Recommendation 2” — sounded like a demand for air support, stating that the ability of aircraft “to drop large quantities of water or other fire retardants on otherwise difficult-to-reach areas, and areas in immediate danger, is difficult to duplicate by other means.” But the recommendation was toothless — a mere suggestion that various agencies try to create a plan for air support. It did not even seek funds for the planning process.
At a commission meeting just two months earlier, in response to a question from a local fire chief about how to build up the air program, Cal Fire’s Chief Padilla had answered, “Well, I hate to say money.” Padilla was instantly interrupted with a “Let me answer that!” by commission chairman Campbell, the retired Hacienda Heights state senator, who promised that the body would indeed address the funding issue.