Sunday, December 9, 2007


by Guy McCarthy

CAJON PASS, Nov. 19 -- "I heard we're supposed to have Santa Ana winds this week," sheriff's Sgt. Harry Stewart said into his helmet mike. "They're supposed to be mild. But who are you gonna believe?"
Deputy Bob Stine, seated next to Stewart in a helicopter they call "40 King 3," surveyed sparsely populated desert hills and draws sprawled about a thousand feet below, just north of Cajon Pass.
"Yeah, the other day it was bad," Stine said into his mike. "You couldn't see 20 feet in front of you. We were grounded half the day."
It was about 8 a.m. Monday. Stewart banked the airship southeast, the engine roared as he added throttle, and 40 King 3 headed over the San Bernardino mountains.
Past Silverwood Lake and over a high ridge, Stine pointed out some of the blackened mountain watershed recently burned in the Grass Valley Fire, near Lake Arrowhead. A hillside pocked with gray squares of ash indicated where scores of homes had burned near a country club.
Further southeast, bigger, blacker scars on the mountains showed the path the Slide Fire had burned downslope below Running Springs and Green Valley Lake, where hundreds of homes burned last month.


Stewart and Stine work for the San Bernardino County sheriff's aviation unit, a close-knit group of pilots, law enforcement officers, mechanics and support staff.
They're based at a hangar in Rialto, near the foot of the Cajon Pass, where possible winds later this week were noted Monday in region-wide National Weather Service forecasts.
Stewart's and Stine's duties Monday included assisting officers on the ground, responding to auto thefts and a reported shooting in San Bernardino. They're also ready and willing to help in other situations -- including fires, floods, and search-and-rescue operations.
"People tend to forget that here in San Bernardino County we have a lot of resources for fires and rescues," said Sgt. Paul Howe, a veteran pilot with the sheriff's aviation unit. "We have 10 airships that can do buckets and retardant. We have at least 10 pilots, and we're all carded by OAS (the federal Office of Aircraft Services). That means we're cleared to fight fires -- federal fires and federal incidents."
Howe, 55, has been with the San Bernardino County sheriff's department since 1985. He is one of several pilots who say local resources often get overlooked during big fires.
"We've sat here on the ground and watched these mountains burn down at least four times," Howe said. "When it hits the fan out here, anywhere in Southern California, that homeowner doesn't care what kind of helicopter it is dropping water. When these disasters happen, we have to be ready to go.''
The sheriff's department has three Type II helicopters, capable of airlifting seven-person helitac teams into fires, and retardant or water capacity up to roughly 700 gallons. Seven smaller Type III helicopters are bucket-ready.
"It boils down to public safety and protecting lives and property," Howe said. "You have public agencies with equipment ready to go. We should use it."
Attempts on Monday to reach Calfire aviation chief Mike Padilla, and Mike Dietrich, chief of aviation and fire for the San Bernardino National Forest, were unsuccessful.


Another veteran pilot, 52-year-old Deputy Craig McConnell, tried to explain how a Vietnam-era helicopter is still of value for the sheriff's department. He stood next to a bulb-nosed craft known as "306" and checked a serial number to be certain of its age.
"It's 1971, a Bell UH-1," McConnell said. "A 'Huey.' We use it for search-and-rescue and fire. For South Ops" -- the Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Riverside -- "this is a Calfire asset, so we can go anywhere in California."
Sometimes they get the call, and sometimes they don't.
"A lot of times we do, but not necessarily on federal fires," McConnell said. "They'll bring in aircraft hundreds of miles away, when we're sitting right here. A classic example of this is the Slide and Grass Valley fires.
"Is that right?" McConnell said. "No. But that's the reality and the politics of it."
Turning back to the 306 Huey, McConnell tried again to convey its relative worth as a public safety tool.
"It was an Army aircraft for utility work," McConnell said. "It could haul troops, equipment, supplies. It was a workhorse, a truck for the Army. That's what makes it a useful platform for us. It's well-built and there are plenty of parts, and compared to a lot of newer aircraft it's cheap to operate and easy to work on.
"It's like an old Volkswagen," McConnell said. "Looks kind of ugly, but it always starts, and it works forever."
The aviation mechanics who strive to keep older and newer helicopters primed and ready in Rialto were too busy for interviews Monday. Maintenance supervisor Curtis Stites worked with two other mechanics and a couple pilots, who had their hands dirty most of the time.


Sheriff's Deputy Cliff Walters, a former Army pilot like some of his peers, is cleared to fly bucket missions on fires alone. But he works sometimes with Riverside County-Calfire Capt. Roger Copp, who acts as a second set of eyes when necessary.
"It makes it easier if you have another guy on board," Walters said. "We have six radios and when there's a fire there's a lot of other aircraft."
High-wind events that fuel the region's most destructive fires also make it unsafe to fly, Copp said.
"At 30 knots, say 35 mph, any more than that and we don't get off the ground," Copp said. "All helicopters, all fixed wing, all aircraft. It's a safety issue and a target issue. It's unsafe for people in the aircraft and you don't want to injure people on the ground. Especially when you take yourself into a canyon with fire, gusty winds and unpredictable fire behavior -- people on the ground are vulnerable. . . . There are a lot of things that are bad."


Winds gusting to 30 mph in the mountains and passes are possible beginning Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Noel Isla said Monday afternoon.
"Wind estimates in the mountains and passes are 15 to 30 mph, most especially in the Cajon Pass, as well as the Cleveland National Forest," said Isla, who is based in San Diego.
Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, expanded on the forecast and warned people against barbecuing on Thanksgiving.
"It won't be a hot Santa Ana, it'll be cooler," Patzert said. "But it's still so dry the situation is very incendiary. It's dry and getting drier. Hopefully people have spent the past few weeks clearing some brush. But I doubt it. . . .
"Based on the complaints last time about response to the fires, the agencies don't want to take any chances," Patzert said. "They're staffing crews everywhere. A lot of firefighters are going to have their turkey in the field this year."
Patzert said he was invited Monday to speak about global warming and its contributions to disasters on ABC's Good Morning America.
"What I really wanted to talk about is zoning and population," Patzert said. "The reason these events keep getting worse and worse is more people keep moving into the danger zones. . . .
"It's not about global warming," Patzert said. "It's about population growth and zoning, and the search for affordable housing in Southern California. We're ignoring what nature's been doing for thousands of years, before written history."
So much for appearing on ABC.
"Good Morning America didn't want to hear that," Patzert said. "They interviewed people who wanted to talk about global warming."
No one answered calls Monday evening at the Good Morning America studio in New York.


Whatever the forecast for Southern California this winter, Copp said he and other agencies have to be ready.
"One year you get the fires," Copp said. "Next time it's the floods. You can't ignore it. It's a double-edged sword."
Howe tried to sum up the aviation unit's readiness for nature's next move.
"When we work with the county, everybody's on the same page," Howe said. "When we get to the state and federal level it's different.
"I just hope people remember, when the next catastrophe happens, we're not the new kids on the block."


Video at

Red flag warning updated Friday morning 11/23/07 at

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