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Grand jury blames 'bias' by feds for growth of Ventura County fire

Via @latimes: Last year's Springs fire burned 24,000 acres
The grand jury recommended that local authorities invest in a new, local water-dropping aircraft

A Ventura County grand jury blamed systematic failures for allowing last year's 24,000-acre Springs fire to grow out of control, including a "bias" by federal authorities against using military aircraft to fight the blaze.

The grand jury report released May 14 also found what it called "failings in the system" outside Ventura County that hampered air efforts to fight the wind-driven fire, which started May 2, 2013, on steep terrain in Camarillo along the 101 Freeway and approached beach communities.

The grand jury recommended that local authorities invest in a new, local water-dropping aircraft to hedge against similar issues in the future.

However, Ventura County fire and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said all aircraft orders were fulfilled during the firefight.

While Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen couldn't say whether there was a bias, he said some rules and regulations limit the federal government's use of certain aircraft, requiring them to first exhaust all other options.

Although the grand jury report indicated some fire responders believed a second helicopter would have helped stop the fire during the initial attack, Lorenzen said the fast-moving blaze grew despite their efforts.

Instead, firefighters utilized the aircraft to protect homes.

"I don't believe if we had another helicopter that we would have been able to stop the Springs fire," Lorenzen said.

A Sheriff's Department helicopter led the initial fire attack and additional firefighting helicopters were requested. But the next water drop did not arrive until more than 45 minutes later.

He said he understood it could be frustrating to see large aircraft idling on an airfield while a wildfire raged throughout the community. But he said certain aircraft were not needed to fight the fire.

The grand jury report indicated federal authorities could request additional resources only if commercial contractors cannot "conveniently and cheaply" provide it. The U.S. Forest Service maintained an aging fleet of air tankers and commercial planes, according to the report.

The U.S. Forest Service did not return requests for comment.

Ventura County Fire and Sheriff's departments have established a capital expenditure fund to pay for the replacement of a helicopter, as well as an additional pilot and mechanic.

"There is always a need for assets," Lorenzen said, adding he was pleased the grand jury recognized a need for more firefighting resources.

Cal Fire crews trained on the California Air National Guard's C-130 air tanker last month in Ventura County in preparation for the fire season, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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