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
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
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
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
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
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