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More questions raised about idle fire aircraft

Several aircraft were able to fly in strong winds on the first full day of last month's Southern California firestorms, contradicting officials' earlier claims that the weather had grounded virtually all aircraft, according to documents released Saturday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Several aircraft were able to fly in strong winds on the first full day of last month's Southern California firestorms, contradicting officials' earlier claims that the weather had grounded virtually all aircraft, according to documents released Saturday.

Twenty-eight of 52 aircraft the state was tracking for firefighting efforts remained grounded that day, and high winds were not listed in the documents as the reason.

The documents attempt to answer charges by federal lawmakers, military officials and others that the state did not effectively marshal all its available air resources as a series of blazes began roaring out of control, eventually destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing at least 10 people.

An earlier Associated Press investigation revealed that military helicopters sat grounded for days, in part because of a shortage of state fire "spotters" who are required to be on board military aircraft used for firefighting.

Officials said wind kept aircraft grounded
The documents obtained by the AP and other news providers under the California Public Records Act answer some questions while raising others. They also reveal a more detailed and at times different version of events than previously provided by the state's top fire and emergency officials.

For example, state fire officials last month said high winds had grounded virtually all aircraft in the first two days after the flames broke out. Therefore, they reasoned, it would not have mattered whether additional state fire spotters had been available to ride in the military choppers.

The documents show that although pilots were hampered by strong winds, a dozen air tankers and five helicopters flew more than 70 hours Oct. 21, the first full day of the firestorm. Those aircraft would have been flown by pilots who — unlike military pilots — are trained specifically for fighting wildland blazes and would not necessarily have required state fire spotters.

The papers also reveal that the number involved in the aerial attack was a fraction of the tankers and helicopters available in the state during the fires' opening days.

Twenty-eight of 52 aircraft the state tracked for firefighting efforts remained grounded. The total would include a combination of aircraft operated by the state, U.S. Forest Service, the military and private contractors.

Equipment either on hold or not requested
They remained on the runway not because of high winds, but because state officials had not requested them or they were being kept in other parts of the state in case fires broke out there, according to the documents.

Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said some of the aircraft not called in to fight the Southern California blazes in the first days helped extinguish smaller fires that popped up elsewhere in the state.

He also said the spreadsheets and other statistics released Saturday fail to capture the heroic efforts by the pilots and crews who fought the fires, which were being fed by Santa Ana wind gusts as high as 100 mph.

"We were making desperate attempts, and the wind was just incredible," Padilla said in a telephone interview. "I saw it blowing water right out of the buckets. ... It's like trying to look back into the fog of war and see how this aircraft or that aircraft was used. It's not easy."

The series of wildfires consumed 780 square miles and injured more than 100 firefighters.

Policies being reevaluated
Padilla said the documents, gathered to respond to the public records request and other internal reviews of how military and civilian aircraft were used, are providing lessons about deploying aircraft.

"It's something that we're realizing that we may have to do a better job in tracking and utilizing individual aircraft in a large situation like this," he said.

The AP reported Oct. 25 that state and federal rules kept nearly two dozen military helicopters, including those from the Marines, Navy and California National Guard, grounded for at least a day after the fires broke out.

Having too few fire spotters was a large part of the problem. State rules require that fire spotters, also called helicopter managers, from the state fire department accompany all choppers to coordinate water or retardant drops.

Unprepared for military contribution
The state has determined it had enough spotters for the helicopters it knew were available but had to scramble to find spotters for the Marine and some of the Navy helicopters because it wasn't expecting them, Padilla said.

"When we found out how many military and Marine helicopters were available, we put in orders and began trying to find qualified managers that weren't already assigned," he said.

The state has only a limited number fire captains trained to direct water and retardant drops from helicopters. When they're not performing those duties, they're commanding crews on the ground.

In many cases, captains had to be located and pulled off fire lines to fly with the military, Padilla said.

The state ultimately determined it wouldn't find enough captains to fill the role and abandoned rules that each military helicopter have one. That decision was made after flames had claimed almost all of the more than 2,000 homes destroyed.

State and federal lawmakers have criticized the lack of coordination between the state and military to get aircraft up sooner.

Three years ago, a state firefighting panel said it should be a "high priority" to find ways to quickly get military helicopters and planes airborne during fast-moving wildfires.