Delay in Aerial Water Drops Is Criticized

Some officials in San Diego County blame the Davis administration. Overlapping jurisdictions hindered early responses.

By Tony Perry and Gregg Jones
Times Staff Writers

October 29, 2003

SAN DIEGO — As fire continued to destroy large portions of San Diego County, the dispute between some local officials and the administration of Gov. Gray Davis intensified Tuesday over why aerial tankers and water-laden helicopters were not available in the first two days of the blaze.

County supervisors fumed that Davis was too slow in authorizing the use of state "air assets" to douse the fire and too timid in seeking federal assistance. Several had pleaded with the governor's staff last weekend to redirect state resources to San Diego and demand help from the federal government and military.

A spokesman for Davis said the supervisors were distorting what he characterized as the governor's long-standing support of fire prevention and fire suppression in Southern California.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), whose home was destroyed by fire Monday, said federal legislation that would smooth the way for the military to use its helicopters to fight fire on public and private land is being stymied by private companies that lease firefighting planes to state governments.

Throughout San Diego County, in the early phase of the most destructive fire in its history, homeowners had looked skyward for tankers and helicopters but didn't see any.

"The only chance to stop the fire was aerial tankers early on Sunday morning, backed by bulldozers, and that's what didn't happen," said Richard Carson, an economics professor at UC San Diego and an expert on public policies involving disaster response, including large-scale brush fires.

Carson, a resident of Scripps Ranch, had been forced to evacuate. Fire spared his home, although 345 in the neighborhood were destroyed.

The answer to the lack of tankers in the fire's early hours lies in the overlapping responsibilities of local, state, federal and military agencies, and in a less-than-speedy process for requesting outside help. In addition, officials said state air equipment could not be deployed over San Diego in the first 48 hours of the fires because the skies were considered too smoky for safe flying.

San Diego's own fire helicopter, and many of its firefighters and fire engines, had been deployed beginning Friday to fight fires in San Bernardino and Ventura counties under a long-standing "mutual aid" agreement. State firefighting personnel and equipment were also focused on those blazes.

San Diego-based Navy helicopters, routinely used to fight fires on military property, were prepared to battle the Cedar fire on Sunday but remained grounded because state officials said the Navy pilots did not have appropriate training. The helicopters were flown to the Ramona airport, but pilots were denied permission to drop water as the fire began its march south and west.

To receive assistance from the U.S. Forest Service or the military, a governor must prove that local forces are inadequate, officials said.

"It's a very tedious procedure and usually takes a few days," said Carson. Much of the criticism from San Diego officials over the lack of tankers and helicopters is focused on Davis. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a Republican who was an enthusiastic supporter of the recall effort, fumed that Davis has proven that "he is not a leader."

Jacob and others insist that Davis could have pushed harder to get federal resources to San Diego or redirect some of the forces fighting fires elsewhere in Southern California. The governor and his chief of staff, San Diego resident Lynn Schenk, disputed that contention at a Scripps Ranch news conference Monday.

"From the first flicker of fire, the governor marshaled every resource we had to fight the fires," Davis press secretary Steven Maviglio said Tuesday. "When thousands of firefighters are putting their lives on the line to fight these fires, it's irresponsible for showboating politicians to try to get a headline with false facts."

City officials took a less confrontational tone than county officials. "I don't believe there were any significant delays," said San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman. "When you have the volume of incidents [throughout Southern California] like we had, you cannot get the resources everywhere you need them."

Bowman defended the Southern California system of mutual aid as a model for the nation. And he said he was disappointed but not upset when told by state officials on Sunday that pilots of the state's air tankers had declared the air too smoky.

"That's their professional judgment and I accept it," said Bowman, flanked by San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy and Police Chief Bill Lansdowne.

Fire protection has been a priority of the Davis administration, officials said. In March, Davis directed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) to begin working with landowners to clear dead trees and to prepare evacuation routes as well as fire-safe evacuation centers for people who aren't able to flee fire-affected areas.

This work has resulted in "remarkably smooth" evacuations during the fires of the last week, said Andrea Tuttle, director of the CDF. "We can thank the saving of lives right now to that work," Tuttle said Tuesday.

On April 16, Davis sent a letter to President Bush asking him to declare a federal state of emergency and to provide federal funding to address the fire danger problem in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Bush never made an emergency declaration.

But $3.3 million in unused federal hazard mitigation funds requested by Davis was redirected to the fire prevention and mitigation efforts.

Tuttle said suggestions that the administration failed to make all efforts to secure military air assistance in fighting the San Diego fires were "entirely unfounded." She added that the state was working with the U.S. Forest Service to obtain military air assistance throughout the weekend. She suggested any delay might have resulted from the efforts necessary to ensure the aircraft are properly equipped to plug into the state communications system.

"It's one thing to get the plane," she said. "It's another thing to get them ready to fly in California airspace…. As we develop the specific chronology, we will be able to show that there was no delay in the process. We think the facts will support that all efforts were taken."

But Hunter said the "firefighting bureaucracy" tends to be slow to act and that officials are reluctant to criticize other fire officials.

Hunter said other members of Congress from Western states have been frustrated when asking state officials to request aerial tankers and helicopters from the U.S. military.

"There's a reluctance among the firefighting bureaucracy at the state and federal levels to use military assets until they exhaust the last of private companies," Hunter said.

He said he has teamed with a congressman from Colorado to seek a change in federal law that would speed the process of getting military craft to fight fires. The private companies that lease and operate aerial tankers are opposed to such a move, Hunter said.

Although the Pentagon, after consulting with state officials Tuesday, authorized the deployment of C-130 tankers, each equipped with a 3,000-gallon tank, the planes had not arrived at local bases by nightfall.