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Firefighting Network Was Overwhelmed : Response: It took hours to deploy firefighters under mutual-aid agreements but only minutes for homes to become engulfed.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At 3:30 Wednesday afternoon a five-engine “strike team” from the Long Beach Fire Department was dispatched to the Carbon Canyon fire in Orange County. The two-dozen firefighters stayed only about an hour before being told to pull out. The Santa Barbara fire had exploded, and units were needed there.

Thus were engine companies from throughout the state deployed in fits and starts Wednesday under a system of mutual-aid agreements between federal, state and local fire departments.

The “Firescope” network, run out of an office in Riverside, has been honed for years and provides maximum flexibility. However, no system makes up for the fact that it takes several hours to drive a fire engine from Orange County to Santa Barbara and only minutes for a wind-propelled firestorm to eat a house.

And this was why hundreds of homeowners in Santa Barbara could spill tears over their dwellings’ ashes Thursday and John Bryant, a U.S. Forest Service deployment expert in the government’s Riverside nerve center, could still say, “It was a pretty fair day.”

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After all, Bryant had spent Wednesday and a couple of hours after midnight Thursday deciding how to mobilize one-third of the 5,000 firefighters who battled five major blazes from San Diego to Santa Barbara. No one, civilian or firefighter, had lost a life trapped by flames in the chaos.

This might have struck some of those on the battlefront as too sanguine a response, considering the immense damage caused by the blazes. Yet the common conclusion Thursday was that nature, as it so often does during brush fire season, had once again defeated tactics. Too many fast-moving fires had struck Southern California on the same day.

Fire officials, looking nervously ahead, said the firestorms underscored the fact that drought-induced conditions have made mountain brush as dry as it usually is by September or October, the peak fire months.

“We’re as prepared as we can be . . . but the way it is today, we can get overwhelmed real quick,” Los Angeles City Fire Chief Donald O. Manning told a news conference where he pleaded with residents to avoid using Fourth of July fireworks.

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“The brush is so dry today--due to the drought--that we don’t even have to have a wind to have a disaster. Certainly, even just a sparkler could start a fire,” he said.

In Santa Barbara on Thursday, Chuck Wagner, Santa Barbara County’s chief administrative officer, complained that retardant-dropping aircraft were not available until dawn Thursday because the aircraft usually based near Santa Barbara had been dispatched to fight blazes that broke out earlier in the day to the south.

But then he admitted that the speed of the fire made the criticism moot.

“The fire moved so fast and had such a heat and intensity to it, the front was actually skipping 200 to 300 yards. Because of the wind and intensity of the heat and dry brush, it basically came down the mountain and was into the residential area before there was time to do anything but evacuate people,” he said.

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Wagner estimated that it took the fire, which started at 6:02 p.m., about 45 minutes to get to the residential areas. He said that other fire agencies from Ventura, Los Angeles, Long Beach and other cities began arriving around 8:30 p.m.

Lee Johnston, the forest service safety officer at the Santa Barbara fire, bemoaned the lack of manpower.

“We didn’t have the people and equipment to put in there,” he said Thursday as he watched fire force the evacuation of one neighborhood. “People here have been working 24 hours and they’re just shot. There were so many fires in the Western U.S., we just couldn’t find people.”

“In the initial stages we were responding to four or five major fires,” said Bryant, who for the last 11 years has been the emergency operations coordinator for the forest service’s southern zone, which covers everything that has burned this week in Southern California.

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“In Santa Barbara it was almost impossible to get enough resources to the fire. It’s a two-hour drive from Los Angeles and we were trying to get heavy equipment up there. We just couldn’t get equipment in there fast enough,” Bryant said.

Bryant’s job involves playing chess with fires after holding periodic conference calls with fire chiefs in counties that are aflame. The strategy is to move engine companies from throughout the state to major fires, throwing enough resources to do the job without leaving other areas unprotected.

The mutual-aid system was responsible for providing 1,400 of the 5,000 firefighters on duty this week. Plans were being made Thursday to send up to 1,600 more firefighters to Santa Barbara.

“The hard part,” Bryant said Thursday, “is that it (the fire) changes every 10 minutes.”

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As of Thursday afternoon the system had sought help outside California in only one instance. Four C-130 aircraft, retrofitted with a 2,000-gallon tank containing water and retardant, were brought in late Wednesday and put into use Thursday afternoon.

In addition to the C-130s, firefighters are using DC-4s and helicopters. They are also deploying 19 Grumman S-2 airplanes.

A spokesman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention said the state was worried that there are only three S-2s left in Northern California.

“We don’t like to let the number in Northern California get so low,” she said. So they are rotating some of the S-2s to Northern California and replacing them with C-130s.

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Baker reported from Los Angeles and Boot from Sacramento.


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