Sunday, December 9, 2007
by Guy McCarthy
SAN BERNARDINO, Nov. 21 -- Winds gusting Wednesday in and below the Cajon Pass indicated why helicopter and tanker plane crews sit ready at airfields across Southern California.
Support staff included mechanics, fuel truck operators and retardant technicians. Their collective goal -- prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, federal aviation managers for the San Bernardino National Forest expressed confidence Wednesday in the county sheriff's aviation unit based at Rialto Municipal Airport.
"We have them on our call list," said Mike Dietrich, chief of fire and aviation management for the forest, which includes mountain communities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. "If we can fly them, we will. They're on our list and they're a valuable asset. We recognize them."
Tom Inocencio, a forest aviation officer based at the federal tanker base at Norton Field, also made assurances that San Bernardino County sheriff's pilots are a valued resource.
"We work on a policy of the closest aircraft available will be called on," Inocencio said Wednesday morning in an interview at Norton Field. "It doesn't matter which agency is calling, or which agency has the aircraft. The closest available resources respond."
Dietrich and Inocencio made their comments in part as response to concerns veteran sheriff's pilots raised earlier this week in Rialto.
At their hangar base near the foot of Cajon Pass on Monday, sheriff's Sgt. Paul Howe and Deputy Craig McConnell indicated that although their personnel and aircraft are federally certified to help fight fires, they often do not get the call -- even as fires burn close by and other aircraft are flying in from elsewhere.
Howe and McConnell frankly addressed a point of public safety that sometimes gets blurred when people discuss wind-driven fires in Southern California -- if the winds are blowing hard, there is a narrow window of opportunity to knock a fire down before it turns into a beast no amount of aircraft can control.
Inocencio praised sheriff's pilots for their contributions on previous fires.
"We're aware of their aircraft, and they have been instrumental on initial attack several times," Inocencio said. "They've done it. But their primary mission is law enforcement, and we try to respect that."
Dietrich said he is sensitive to all pilots' concerns when it comes to timely initial attack. But winds gusting higher than 60 mph grounded all aircraft at times during the Slide and Grass Valley fires last month, Dietrich said.
Authorities estimated those fires destroyed 450 homes in the San Bernardino mountains.
"When we have 70 mph winds like we did on the Slide and Grass Valley fires, there were many aircraft we had to set down," Dietrich said. "Bottom line is we use all our aircraft when we can safely. And I think in San Bernardino and Riverside counties we're pretty darn well-coordinated."
Experience is a teacher. Local firefighters, pilots, law enforcement officers and volunteers have been tested several times in recent years when raging fires approached vulnerable communities on fire-prone edges of the foothills and forests.
Since October 2003, evacuation plans for thousands of imperiled residents have worked, thanks in part to multi-agency coordination of Mountain Area Safety Taskforce officials in both counties.
Getting people safely out of the way when fires get big is one thing. Fighting infernos of firestorm proportions is another.
SOMETIMES YOU CAN'T FLY
Inocencio, responding to some media reports that initial response to the wildfires last month was lacking, spoke from personal experience.
"The start of the fires on Oct. 21, I'd defy anybody to say we didn't have aircraft up," Inocencio said. "I was up there six and a half hours in an air attack on the Ranch Fire in L.A. county. We left here about 6:30 in the morning.
"We were unable to use any retardant planes that day at all because the winds were too erratic," Inocencio said. "Gusting 50 to 70 mph and sustained at least 40 mph."
Lt. Tom Hornsby, commander for the sheriff's aviation unit in Rialto, said his primary goal in all public safety situations is coordinating and maintaining positive relations with the agencies involved.
"We all have a depth and breadth of experience, but there are some problems that take years to understand," Hornsby said. "There are decisions that get made to this day that I do not understand. But the fire agencies are the experts when it comes to fighting fires, and I don't question them."
Federal and state fire officials are rightly cautious when it comes to firefighters' and pilots' safety because of the Esperanza Fire in October 2006, Hornsby said. Five Forest Service firefighters died trying to protect a home below Twin Pines in Riverside County. Authorities have charged a suspected arsonist with five counts of murder.
"They're working under the shadow of what happened a year ago," Hornsby said. "They don't want to get anybody hurt."
SOME DAYS EASIER THAN OTHERS
On July 21, 2006, law enforcement, firefighters and pilots jumped on a fast-burning grass fire in Crafton Hills. Photos show how quickly deputies determined arson as the cause, while aircraft coordinated with ground crews to shut the fire down before it did any significant damage to property. Helicopter pilots in particular, including at least one sheriff's pilot, made the most of available water resources close at hand.
Three months later, on Oct. 26, 2006, the elements and ignition conspired to create the deadly Esperanza Fire. Blasting winds out of San Gorgonio Pass subsided slightly after the initial firestorm that killed the crew of Forest Service Engine 57 early that day. Video shows that helicopter pilots and tanker crews had stiff winds to deal with in a firefight that lasted overnight and dragged on for several days.
LAND USE ACCOUNTABILITY
Richard Minnich, a fire ecologist at UC-Riverside's department of earth sciences, said firefighters and pilots in Southern California are sometimes tasked with the impossible.
"We have the resources, but the firefighters should not be accountable for the land use that takes place at the interface, where the homes meet the forests and the brush," Minnich said. "Maybe the people who live at the edges of these areas need to pay for their own firefighting."
Pilots and firefighters may be viewed as heroes by a vast number of homeowners, Minnich said. But the sobering fact is that homeowners' choices and local governments' land use decisions are the catalysts that increasingly and unfairly place the burden of protection on over-taxed public safety agencies.
"Yes, it's heroic what they may be doing," Minnich said. "But I'd rather see them using these resources in slower-moving fires at the interface, rather than fighting these wildfire blitzkriegs launched on us by fire suppression.
"If it's in open country, let it burn."
San Bernardino County sheriff's aviation at
Photos of Crafton Hills fire July 21, 2006
Video of Esperanza fire on Oct. 26, 2006
Red flag warning updated Friday morning 11/23/07 at