Helicopters corkscrew down to the surface of Hansen Dam in the San Fernando Valley as the unstoppable Station Fire pushes up a mile-high billow of smoke. Along the sparse grass bordering the reservoir and in 100-degree heat, rows of tents house firefighters who arrived here to fight Los Angeles County’s biggest wildfire ever.

“With a fire behaving like this there are no guarantees,” says Dennis Trentham, the superintendent for the Cherokee Hotshots of northeast Tennessee. He and his 23-man team hacked through 3-foot-high grass and 15-foot walls of trees and chaparral to face flames that jumped 80 feet in the air.

Across a picnic table sits Bennet Fusilier, who 20 hours earlier chopped his big toe in half while cutting brush to starve the blaze. Hansen Dam Park is abuzz, the staging ground for a siege on the 160,000-acre fire that may burn into mid-September.

That was last week, five days into the blaze, when Cal Fire sent seven heli-tankers, six helicopters, eight air tankers and extensive ground crews and ground equipment to fight it. The question is, How did the Station Fire explode far beyond expectations on August 29? Most experts are saying it was kept away from the streets of Pasadena, Glendale and Sunland-Tujunga, at least in part, merely because the wind chose not to blow.

The sort of massive air attack that could have stopped the flames on Saturday was not launched, as fire officials underestimated how quickly the extreme hot weather and mature brush would fuel the flames. Now, in private meetings that are part of the normal debriefing among the top fire brass, a discussion is under way about what did and did not go right.

“It is just incredible,” says Wayne Coulson, CEO of Couslon Air Crane, which contracts to provide the huge, 7,200-gallon Martian Mars air tanker to the National Forest Service, about the fire’s exponential growth that awful Saturday. “With that fuel out there, this thing is running faster than you can hit it.”

The Martian Mars, laden with fire suppressant, was ordered into the fight, but, Coulson says, by then it was too late. The low humidity fed a monster. Once the fire got away from Cal Fire and others, air tankers and helicopters could only try to hold fire lines hard-fought by ground crews like Trentham’s.

Across the board, the consensus is that when conflagrations like the Station fire start, the best way to stop them is with a hard, fast hit — and in rough, steep terrain that usually means air tankers dropping fire retardant or helicopters dumping water.

“Air support is one of the most valuable assets we have,” says Mark Stormes, battalion chief of Los Angeles Fire Department 3, located in the San Fernando Valley. “Imagine trying to get ground vehicles up Laurel Canyon Drive at 5 p.m. Aircraft can come and hit the fire while we are still getting there.”

But the cost is mighty, and at least one major newspaper has adopted an editorial bent against air support amidst a long-standing debate. Last year, the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for stories describing the growing threat of wildfire, which included a sidebar, widely ridiculed by air-support firefighters, headlined: “Air tanker drops in wildfires are often just for show.” The article argued that often, water drops are largely a salve to allay residents’ fears. The paper hit that narrow theme again a few days ago with an opinion column that minimized the need for drops from helicopters and tankers.

But that urbanite view is just wrong, experts say. Dennis Hulbert is the Forest Service’s California aviation chief, charged with the task of preventing huge fires by using strained resources that support a large fleet of air tankers and helicopters. He points to the importance of the initial attack on brush and wildland fires, saying that air support is key in his department’s 98 percent success rate of quashing emergent flames.

“But it is the big ones that break [out] that make the news,” he says, probably fueling a misconception by some that air support is not critical to stopping such fires in their tracks.

Similarly, Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations Chief Anthony Marrone’s strategy is to use air drops as fast and extensively as possible, no matter how innocuous a fire seems. His department’s helicopters, which, unlike most California counties, include night-vision tools and are driven by pilots trained in night maneuvering, were crucial in beating a harrowing fire on the Palos Verdes Peninsula several days ago.

“Our model is we attack every fire like it’s going to kill people, burn homes, last 30 days and cost $80 million,” Marrone says of the critical need for air support.

The aggressive water-dropping effort in Palos Verdes prompted Sunland-Tujunga residents to claim their working-class community was abandoned by crews bound for the far richer ocean-view peninsula.

Millions of Americans now live along the city edges in what is called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), where developed areas meet undeveloped areas. One in seven Californians, a stunning 5 million people, and a population far greater than that of the city of Los Angeles, live in or very near the WUI. They range from poor, rural dwellers to wealthy escapees from the city. Yet nationally, there are only 17 air tankers to fight these conflagrations. In California, the Forest Service has access to 33 helicopters. Some counties and the city of Los Angeles also have their own copters.

Tony Morris, who runs the Wild Fire Research Network and Web site, is deeply worried. He points to France, where a fleet of 12 Bombardier CL 415s that can fly in winds of up to 50 mph are able to stop big fires, and helped to save Marseille in 1998. Two of the aircraft are stationed at Van Nuys Airport from September 1 through the end of November.

“The real problem in this country is that we don’t have enough firefighting aircraft,” Morris says.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs released its second Quadrennial Fire Review this year, which notes that fires, whether set by arsonists or touched off by lightning or downed power lines — three common causes — are wiping out more and more territory. In the 1990s the average acreage blackened annually was 3.78 million acres. This decade, that annual average jumped to 7.15 million acres.

In 2000, the USDA Forrest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior devoted $2 billion to the National Fire Plan. One of the NFP’s primary goals is to reduce the amount of brush, trees and naturally occurring fuels through planned burns or thinning. But a recent report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that while rangers and land managers have been very active to that end, of 44,000 acres burned or thinned in the West from 2004 to 2008, only 11 percent were located in areas where the most dangerous fires break out. Even more disconcerting is that this poor prioritizing was the fault of the stewards of federal, state and local land. The vast majority of land in the wild land-urban interface is privately owned.

“We don’t have good policy tools and regulation to force landowners to use proper building materials and clear vegetation,” says the study’s co-author Cara Nelson.

Trentham of the Cherokee Hot Shots stands up, ready for his next shift a few days before crews finally contained most of the Station fire. “The wind can be your best friend and it can also be your worst enemy.”

But it wasn’t the wind that drove the Station fire. An accumulation of fuel and a lack of humidity killed the success of an initial air attack some residents found woefully insufficient.

Now, Southern California is approaching the season of Santa Ana winds, and fire crews are hoping their luck will hold.

LA Weekly