'War Room' Directs the Big Battle Against Fires

Times Staff Writer

In a converted warehouse tucked between modest homes and an RTD parking lot near downtown Riverside is what they call "the war room."

Here, far from the flames and smoke of the fire lines, representatives of nine local, state and federal firefighting agencies make gut-wrenching decisions about where to send limited numbers of air tankers, men and equipment that can save lives and homes.

When the telephones ring at the long, lime-green table at the center of the war room, "It's local agencies needing support in disaster situations," said California Department of Forestry Chief Michael Harris.

On Wednesday, the telephones rang with unsettling regularity. Searing heat, low humidity, erratic winds and arson continued to fuel fires that have destroyed more than 100 homes and charred more than 100,000 acres throughout Southern California since the weekend.

All the callers were desperate. Most of them sought help locating air tankers and helicopters from the organization, the Multi-Agency Command Center, which monitors firefighting resources across the state and arranges, whenever possible, to send them to where they're needed most.

Of all the resources available, tankers and helicopters were in shortest supply, creating mind-boggling logistical problems for the organization, which was activated Tuesday to cut through time-consuming red tape.

Harris said the state controls a fleet of 20 air tankers, about one-third of the national total. The aircraft are leased from the Navy for $1 a year, then sub-leased to flight companies that modify, maintain and operate them.

The planes are stationed throughout California "where they have a maximum 30-minute flight time to any location in the state," Harris said.

Throughout the day, officials were moving men, equipment and planes back and forth from one fire to another.

For example, at noon, fire officials at the "Roblas Fire," which erupted Monday afternoon at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, requested additional air tankers and engine strike teams because the blaze was creeping dangerously close to homes in De Luz, in northern San Diego County.

The officials studied the situation at nearly half a dozen other fires. Since a brush fire on the hillsides above the Riverside Freeway in Orange County posed the least threat to structures, they diverted the requested support from there to San Diego, authorities said.

A more difficult decision was made at 4 p.m., when a new blaze broke out about 15 miles southwest of where another fire--one of the largest still burning in the state--was burning out of control off Highway 33 north of Ojai, authorities said.

Under the organization's policy, "a new fire has precedence," said California Department of Forestry Batallion Chief Carl Stadick. Therefore, "we diverted three air tankers and ground forces off the Ojai fire" to the smaller new one. "The game plan is to get it out as quickly as you can."

Established in 1977, the organization is only activated in the event of multiple disasters. The fact that it has not convened in the last two fire seasons is indicative of how critical the current fire situation is, officials said.

The organization is composed of representatives of the Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura county fire departments; the Los Angeles Fire Department; the California Department of Forestry; the U.S. Forest Service, and the state Office of Emergency Services.

At two-hour intervals, these officials share information and expertise, and set priorities on whose demands for resources are most critical.

Before the organization was called into action Tuesday, resources were located and dispensed by the California Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service through their computerized "command center," which is down the hall from the war room.

With wall-sized maps of California and communication modules manned by dispatchers speaking in hushed tones, it does indeed resemble a military command headquarters.

Despite the impressive array of machines and manpower, however, the system is not foolproof.

On Sunday, authorities ran into trouble with San Diego city officials who chastised them for delays in getting air tankers to a fire that destroyed 64 homes in that city's Normal Heights district.

San Diego officials said they asked for air support before 1 p.m. Sunday but did not receive air tankers--flying down from another fire in Ventura--until just before 6:30 p.m., after 50 homes had burned.

Meanwhile, other aerial tankers were dumping retardants on a major brush fire in El Cajon, only minutes away by air, even though the threat of property damage was much less.

"San Diego is making it sound like we were protecting chipmunks and brush and letting the city burn," said Harris, obviously miffed. "Not true."

By way of explanation, Harris blamed the incident on a breakdown in communications. "The problem was that they did not follow the normal process for placing an order," Harris said. That process includes requesting what the department calls an "order number."

"Our dispatcher believed it (the first call from San Diego officials) was an inquiry of availability," he added. "They did not make a formal request for air tankers."

At 4:40 p.m., he said, the department did receive a formal request from San Diego city officials, and an "order number was assigned" and "we responded in three minutes."

San Diego Fire Chief Roger Phillips bitterly disputed the Forestry Department's contention that the city's initial request was not made properly.

"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.). I was there when they did it."

He also said, "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."

But the issue does not end there. Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), among others, said that five California Air National Guard C-130 transports stationed at Van Nuys Airport and March Air Force Base that are capable of fighting fires could have easily reached the San Diego fire before the department's contract air tankers did.

John Bryant, Southern California fire coordinator for the Forest Service and member of the Multi-Agency Command, disagreed. The transports, he said, take "eight to 12 hours to activate" for firefighting purposes and probably could not have reached the scene in time to save structures.

What's more, he said local officials had 20 contract air tankers at their disposal through Monday and had no need for the transports. "We never really ran out of air tankers," he said.

On Tuesday, however, the situation changed dramatically when a fire broke out in Idaho and threatened to siphon off some of the available air tankers. As a result, the transports were ordered on Tuesday and were ready for action at noon Wednesday.

At one of the periodic meetings Wednesday, participants sat down by a blackboard listing seven major fires raging in Southern California. That was two more than were listed only a few hours earlier.

The first to speak was Ronald Hamilton, fire weather forecaster for the National Weather Service, who reported that temperatures would remain high through the weekend and that erratic winds would continue to plague firefighters battling a blaze in Ventura County.

Then, there was more bad news. Contaminated fuel had grounded four air tankers in Hemet. The message was immediately relayed to dispatchers in the command center, who began reshuffling scheduled air drops.

Harris, a tobacco chewer who is never without a styrofoam cup in hand, muttered softly to himself, "This weekend is going to be a bummer."

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