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Under Fire, Airborne Firefighters Dodge the Blame at Hearing

Times Staff Writer

The day fire destroyed or damaged 102 homes in the Normal Heights section of San Diego, state firefighting planes arrived six hours late and no one ever requested that the National Guard come in.

The day fire destroyed 53 homes and killed three people in the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles, no state or federal firefighting planes responded automatically, even though National Guard planes were a five-minute flight away.

“The Baldwin Hills fire was not our fire,” Jerry Partain, director of the California Department of Forestry (CDF), explained at a legislative hearing in San Diego Monday. “It was not ours to (make a) request.”

Of the Normal Heights fire, CDF Ranger Barritt Neal said, “It’s not my baby.”

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Speaking at a hearing on the state’s aerial firefighting network, Partain, Neal and other federal, state and city officials sketched a system of interlocking bailiwicks sometimes guided by little more than past practices and tacit agreements.

Yet they insisted that the system is adequate for “normal-worse” conditions, and that any kinks are being worked out. They said it would not be feasible to base a firefighting system on “worst-case” fires like those in June and July.

But Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) suggested that the speakers were part of a firefighters’ “old-boy network,” with a vested interest in the status quo. He accused the state’s private aerial firefighting contractors of blocking the use of federal planes.

Stirling called for the California Air National Guard to be placed on alert during fire season. That way, he said, National Guard members would get training and the state would be able to use resources for which it already pays.

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“We’re the only nation I know that can have a military do nothing but train,” Stirling said after the hearing. “The Roman soldiers built roads when they weren’t fighting wars. There’s no reason the U.S. Army can’t fight fires.”

The purpose of the hearing, held by the Joint Legislative Committee on Fire, Police, Disaster and Emergency Services, was to explore the aerial firefighting network, which was faulted after the Normal Heights and Baldwin Hills blazes.

The speakers, including officials of the U.S. Forest Service, California National Guard, and Los Angeles and San Diego city fire departments, described an extensive but complex system of interlocking and overlapping responsibilities.

They also described a variety of equipment that is not always suitable for every fire. For example, they said the National Guard’s equipment works better on ridges than canyons, and chemical fire retardant is often hazardous in heavily populated areas.

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“People see aerial firefighting as a panacea,” said Jerry M. Haleva, a committee aide. “It’s not a panacea, it’s a tool. It’s like a fire engine: everyone wants it in his driveway. But is that the most effective place to put it?”

On the federal level, speakers said California houses five of the country’s eight “mobile airborne firefighting systems.” Yet the National Guard has used them in California only seven times in 11 years because of the cumbersome preconditions that must be met.

On the state level, CDF operates an extensive system of air tankers, protecting a jurisdiction that includes state parks. But CDF did not have responsibility for the state park bordering Baldwin Hills because the city controls it under a special agreement.

On the local level, federal and state forces don’t automatically respond unless there is a specific request. Officials acknowledged that the multidimensional nature of the system makes discipline and “standard operating procedures” crucial.

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In San Diego, at the June 30 Normal Heights fire, the city’s request was vague and the state’s dispatcher failed to clarify it, CDF officials said. But they said they would have dispatched aircraft anyway--if the aircraft had not already been tied up at other fires.

In the end, the firefighting officials argued that the real constraint in fighting massive fires is simply the limitation on resources.

“You can’t build a water system to fight that type of fire, just as you can’t build a fire department to combat that type of fire,” San Diego Fire Chief Roger C. Phillips said of the Normal Heights fire.

“I cannot guarantee you that if we’d had four aircraft we would have have had many structures saved,” Phillips said. “I think overall you still would have had many structures destroyed.”

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After the hearing, Stirling accused the firefighting officials of simply accepting as inevitable a few major disasters involving massive loss of property. He insisted they might be better controlled if existing resources were used more efficiently.

Stirling suggested that the California National Guard be placed on alert every year during the fire season so that the mobile aerial firefighting systems now stationed in California could be used regularly.

He blamed private firefighting contractors nationwide for limiting their use, saying the contractors had lobbied legislators to withhold funding and to require that all other equipment be exhausted before the National Guard can be called in to fight a fire.

Assemblywoman Gwen Moore, who represents Baldwin Hills, said she might propose that the state buy tanker units to be fitted to National Guard planes to make it quicker and easier for the state to deploy them in emergencies.

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When she asked San Diego and Los Angeles city fire officials if they might help pay for such a system, they said they supported the idea but would want to know its effect on their budgets.

Also under consideration are bills that would increase the number of private aircraft under contract to the CDF and establish an emergency appropriation to help CDF and other agencies pay for costs incurred during the current, extraordinary fire season.


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