Although San Diego fire chiefs claim they formally requested air drops on the devastating Normal Heights fire about 1 p.m. Sunday, state firefighters say that they have checked dispatchers' tapes and confirmed that talk of a formal request to send air tankers to San Diego did not begin until nearly four hours later.
By then, more than 50 homes in one of San Diego's oldest neighborhoods had burned.
Had San Diego put a request for air tankers through proper channels when its dispatcher made his first call to the state's El Cajon office at 12:59 p.m., the city probably would have received them quickly, said Mike Harris, a fire prevention chief at the Forestry Department's regional office in Riverside.
But in that first discussion of air drops, held about an hour after the worst fire in city history began, the San Diego dispatcher never used long-established procedures to place a formal request--a request which would include the city's billing code number--through the state firefighting network, Harris said.
Instead, a Forestry Department tape of that discussion shows, the San Diego dispatcher asked briefly about air drops, engaged in a neighborly discussion about how state firefighters were doing in their battle against the Mt. Miguel fire 40 miles away, then signed off. At no time in the conversation did the San Diego dispatcher
use an order number.
San Diego Fire Chief Roger Phillips angrily disputed the Forestry Department's contention that the city's first request was not a formal one.
"That is not true, and they (city dispatchers) have checked their tapes," Phillips said late Tuesday. "I know we made the request (at 12:59 p.m. Sunday). I was there when they did it ....
"The request went to CDF (the California Department of Forestry) one hour after the incident. That was the request. I don't know whether they (Forestry officials) are right or not, but we made the request. Whether there was an order number or not, I don't know."
San Diego fire officials on Tuesday refused to release a tape recording of the 12:59 p.m. conversation with the California Department of Forestry. However, on Wednesday, Forestry Department officials in El Cajon gave The Times a recording of the conversation.
Meanwhile, state officials said San Diego's air tankers were delayed further Sunday when, later that afternoon, San Diego fire dispatchers contacted the wrong agency to ask for National Guard air tankers. It would have taken those planes and their crews 8 to 12 hours to mobilize for air drops, those officials said.
Keith Harrison, emergency services coordinator for the state Office of Emergency Services, said he received a call from a San Diego dispatcher at 3:58 p.m. requesting military air support. Such requests are supposed to go through the California Department of Forestry, Harrison said.
"The request was out of channel," Harrison said. "I told them: 'You need to pursue this through the mutual aid system.' "
At 4:40 p.m., San Diego officials finally put in a second call to the Forestry Department, this time to the regional office in Riverside. Again, the San Diego dispatcher failed to provide an order number, Harris said.
But by this time the forestry dispatcher understood the severity of the Normal Heights fire and assigned to San Diego order number MVU-1325, Harris said.
Exactly three minutes later, forestry officials diverted four planes, including two U.S. Forest Service air tankers, a lead plane and an air attack ship from a brush fire in Ventura County to San Diego.
They arrived at 6:27 p.m., and about two hours later, those planes, working with a battalion of fire crews in a steep canyon below Cromwell Court, brought the Normal Heights fire under control.
The question of when the air tankers were called has become a sensitive one for city firefighters and state forestry officials alike.
The Normal Heights fire destroyed 64 homes; severely damaged 20 more; destroyed 18 garages, sheds and other outbuildings, and incinerated 18 vehicles. Damage has been estimated at $8.5 million, and that doesn't cover the property burned inside the buildings.
Some firefighters and Normal Heights residents believe that San Diego's fire never would have reached such catastrophic proportions if planes had arrived sooner to drop their sticky payload of pink fire retardant into the brush.
"We could have used them at noon," San Diego Fire Department spokesman Denis McNeil said Tuesday. On Wednesday, forestry officials in Riverside sent an internal memo to Jerry Letson, the Forestry Department's deputy director for fire protection in Sacramento, to explain the series of events that led to the delay in using air tankers to fight the Normal Heights fire.
"It was not a matter of us choosing not to protect life and property in (San Diego)," Harris said. "The issue at best can be classified as a communication error (that resulted from San Diego) fire officials not following formal procedures."
They did fail to follow established procedures, he said. Still, he said, the state Department of Forestry shares some of the blame for miscommunication during San Diego's 12:59 p.m. call for tankers.
"I would have liked to think that our guy would have said, 'Hey, dummy, are you really trying to ask for a resource? Don't you know the system or what?' Unfortunately, that didn't take place," Harris said.
Next week, Acting City Manager John Lockwood, working with Fire Department officials, is to submit a critique of the city Fire Department's performance on the Normal Heights fire to the City Council. And Wednesday, as Mayor Roger Hedgecock visited the remains of a home burned to the ground in that fire, he urged that the review be a tough one.
"The time has come to ask the Fire Department to critique itself, which they're already doing . . . to see if there's anything we missed. We've got to learn from our experience," the mayor said.
The recording of the 12:59 p.m. conversation provided to The Times by the state Department of Forestry reveals a casual conversation during which the San Diego dispatcher asked if CDF could respond to a call by fire officials for "air drops on this fire in Mission Valley," and the CDF official responded that its two tankers were already committed. The conversation ended with the San Diego dispatcher asking about another fire in the East County, then thanking the CDF official.
The 38-second interchange did not constitute a formal request for aid from the Forestry Department, Chief Douglas Allen, with the Forestry Department in El Cajon, and Chief Harris, from the Forestry Department's regional office in Riverside, maintained.
The regional office not only supplies state firefighters to major fires, but can call up and coordinate firefighters and equipment from the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and cities and counties around the state. But any request for aid--whether for strike teams, fire engines or air tankers--is not considered for processing through this network until a local fire department provides an order number, Harris and Allen said. This assures that requests are handled in chronological order and are billed to the requesting agency.
"No request gets filled without a number," Allen said. "It's a formal system where we all give an authorized request number, a chronological number so the requests can be tracked: Who requested? When? What type of equipment . . . Hey, you want something? Give me a number. That is the system."
Harris added, "If the guy (the San Diego dispatcher) had said, 'On such and such an order . . . ,' our guy (dispatcher) picks up a time card, punches the card and passes it up to the regional office."
Would San Diego have gotten air tankers if its dispatcher had done this at 12:59 p.m.?
Initially, "I know they would have been turned down," Allen said. "Right then, there weren't any more aircraft available, whether you put a number on it or not, whether you request formally or informally."
But because they had filed a formal request, they probably would have gotten tankers in an hour or two, Harris said. "Because we had some (tankers) shortly thereafter. We would not have just denied it."
Asked if the San Diego dispatcher had made an error by not supplying any code number, Harris said he didn't know.
But "I would say that is not the normal procedure or method for requesting assistance," he said. "As an example, at 13:03 (1:03 p.m., just four minutes after the call about air tankers), the city made a request for five Type 1 engine strike teams, and that was San Diego City order 37-140-52888. And that order was filled."
Also, Harris noted, while San Diego went without air tankers Sunday afternoon, the Mt. Miguel brush fire just 40 miles away got two of the four additional air tankers it formally requested through the regional system.
Though the system gave Sunday, it also took away. By late afternoon, the Riverside office had pulled four air tankers off the Mt. Miguel fire and sent them to several other new brush fires in Southern California, Harris said.
Ultimately, San Diego got its air tankers from Ventura County--not from the Mt. Miguel fire--because "at the time the (formal) request from the city was received by us at 4:40 p.m., we had only two air tankers left at the Millar (or Mt. Miguel) fire, which is not many. And especially when the incident commander (in charge of the fire) is telling you, 'Hey, you really ripped us off with diverts.' "
Ironically, one of the air tankers that San Diego ultimately received "had been at the Millar fire and then to Ventura and then back to San Diego, all the same day," Harris said.