SAN DIEGO — Helicopter pilots with the San Diego Sheriff's Department
wanted to conduct aerial water drops on the Cedar fire shortly after it
was ignited Saturday but were prohibited from doing so by the U.S.
Forest Service, sheriff's officials said Thursday.
One sheriff's helicopter was flying back to an air base to pick up a
"Bambi bucket" capable of dropping 100 gallons of water when the pilot
was ordered to stay away from the fire, said Chris Saunders, a
Sheriff's Department spokesman.
Another sheriff's pilot said in an interview with The Times that he
believed the fire could have been extinguished if an air assault was
launched when the pilots volunteered to help and the fire was still
But an official with the U.S. Forest Service, which had initial
jurisdiction over the blaze, said the Sheriff's Department's request to
make water drops was denied out of concerns for the pilots' safety and
the belief that the drops would have done little good.
"We found out a long time ago that helicopters with little buckets are
not effective in fighting brush fires like this," said Rich Hawkins,
fire chief with the U.S. Forest Service. "No little helicopter with its
little bucket would have done much good."
The request by the sheriff's pilots, Hawkins noted, came as the sun was
"There is a simple reason we not do night flying operations," he said.
"It's just too dangerous." Pilot visibility, he said, is extremely poor
in the dark.
The Cedar fire has burned 272,318 acres, caused 4 deaths and destroyed
As a matter of policy, firefighting aircraft employed by the U.S.
Forest Service are grounded shortly before nightfall, which on Saturday
was about 5:30 p.m.
At the Ramona Air Attack Base, about nine miles from where the fire
started, the first call into dispatch about the blaze in the Cleveland
National Forest came at 5:41 p.m. But by that time, the base's
operations had been closed for the night.
The base, jointly operated by the U.S. Forest Service and the
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection provides airborne
firefighting for the Cleveland National Forest and surrounding areas.
While aircraft for the U.S. Forest Service were grounded Saturday
evening, a sheriff's helicopter was in the air searching for a hunter
who had been lost. At 5:41 p.m., the helicopter noticed a plume of
smoke over Cedar Creek Falls, where the blaze originated, according to
sheriff dispatch records.
At 5:50 p.m., a sheriff's dispatcher notified the U.S. Forest Service
that firefighting units were needed in the area. A minute later the
pilot requested that the Forest Service bring in a "helo" to make a
water drop. But sheriff's officials say the Forest Service did not act.
By 5:54 p.m., the pilot reported to his dispatcher that the fire was
about 100 square yards. At 6:05 p.m., the pilot landed and rescued the
hunter, who was standing near the blaze. Fire officials suspect it was
the lost hunter who started the fire when he lighted a flare, trying to
Dave Weldon, the sheriff's pilot who helped rescue the hunter, said he
believed the Forest Service didn't act quickly enough. "We advised
[fire officials] to fight it," Weldon said. "They told us they couldn't
fly an aircraft at night."
As Weldon and his partner flew out of the area with the hunter, the
fire had consumed about 20 acres. Another sheriff's helicopter pilot by
that time was on his way to pick a Bambi bucket to start dropping water
on the fire. But that chopper was told to stand down, according to
The Forest Service "insisted that [the sheriff's helicopter] not
respond with the Bambi bucket due to rules, regulations on water drops
after the cutoff hour," according to a 6:17 p.m. sheriff's dispatch
Hawkins defended the decision to bar the water drops, saying that even
if they were made, the fire still would have grown out of control given
the dry, windy weather and the accumulation of dry brush.