Attacks on Oakland Fire Dept. Mount : Disaster: Critics say officials were slow in asking for aerial support in fighting the deadly inferno. Also, offers from state firefighters were ignored, records show.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attacks on the Oakland Fire Department are mounting after its handling of the disastrous Oct. 20 wildfire, with critics saying that officials were slow in requesting aerial support and ignored calls from state firefighters offering assistance.

During the initial hour of the fire, calls by the field commander for an assault on the Oakland hills with helicopters and air tankers went unheeded at first, dispatchers' logs show.

Don Matthews, an Oakland Fire Department assistant chief who was coordinating the firefighting effort, radioed from the scene for aerial assistance at 11:07 a.m., according to dispatch tapes obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

However, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection received the first request for air support not from Oakland but from the East Bay Regional Parks District at 11:19 a.m., state records show.

A state dispatcher who then called Oakland was put on hold twice for six minutes. When a supervisor finally got through at 11:26 a.m., Oakland asked for a single helicopter to be sent.

According to the Oakland records, Matthews repeatedly radioed from the fire for "massive" aerial assistance. About 11:45 a.m., he said: "We need a lot of them (air tankers and helicopters). . . . I can't give you a number, but this fire has multiple threads and we're losing structures."

As the fire swept through the hills, Matthews radioed: "How about air support? It's critical. We need a lot of bombers," according to the dispatch tapes.

The first helicopter arrived on the scene at 11:55 a.m. State records show that it was not until 12:30 p.m. that the Oakland Fire Department requested air tankers, which carry two to four times the load of a firefighting helicopter.

The fire went on to kill at least 25 people and destroy more than 3,000 homes and apartments. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildland fire ever in California.

Oakland officials have consistently defended their handling of the fire, arguing that little could be done once the blaze started in the dry brush and was fanned by strong, hot winds. City officials declined to comment Thursday on the Fire Department's initial response to the emergency.

The city came under criticism earlier for not completely putting out a brush fire that began in the Oakland hills the previous day. That small grass fire is believed tohave sparked the catastrophic fire.

Karen Terrill, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry, said the state is investigating Oakland's response to the fire and its initial handling of the blaze.

The dispatch tapes, according to the Examiner, also show that the Oakland Fire Department failed to alert the city of Berkeley, where the fire destroyed scores of homes.

However, at 11:45 a.m., Oakland contacted the Alameda County mutual aid headquarters and asked for the assistance of fire engines and firefighters from other jurisdictions in the area.

Despite apparent delays by the Oakland Fire Department in calling for air support, helicopters and air tankers arrived relatively quickly because they were already in the air to fight other, smaller fires in the region.

Two air tankers took off from Fresno and Salinas at 11:56 a.m. to fight a fire six miles from the Oakland blaze, state records show. When the Oakland Fire Department requested tankers at 12:30 p.m., the planes were diverted and dropped retardant on the blaze just after 1 p.m.

Throughout the afternoon, Oakland continued to ask for additional air support and in each case the California Department of Forestry responded quickly to supply the planes, the department's records show.

A separate investigation into the cause of the initial fire is focusing on a 50-foot-square area where a makeshift barbecue pit was discovered.

Arson investigators say the fire is of a suspicious origin, but their probe is hampered by the fact that the intense, wind-whipped inferno left no evidence of how it started. At this point, investigators are relying on interviews with more than 100 witnesses and area residents in the hope of finding the cause.

The possibility that the fire was started by a nearby homeless encampment has been ruled out, a state spokeswoman said. Construction workers who were working in the area have passed polygraph examinations, but the possibility that they may have played a role in the fire is still being investigated, said Sandy Simpson, a spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal's Office.

The Fire's Fatalities

Here is the full list of victims who died in the firestorm that swept the Oakland and Berkeley hills on Oct. 20.

Eunice Barkell, 79, Oakland

Gail A. Baxter, 61, Oakland

May Elizabeth Blos, 85, Oakland

Mary Lucile Brantly, 78, Oakland

Robert Emery Cox, 64, Oakland

Terrill J. DuPont, 58, Berkeley

Carolyn Grant, 75, Oakland

John Alexander Grant, 77, Oakland

John. W. Grubensky, 32, Fairfield

Segall Livnah, 18, Oakland

Phillip Loggins, 61, Oakland

Lucy Chi-Wen Mantz, 46, Oakland

Gregor E. McGinnis, 46, Berkeley

Louis Douglas McNeary, 44, Oakland

Patrick Emmett O'Neill, 40, Oakland

Leigh Ortenburger, 62, Palo Alto

Martha Gabriela Reed, 18, Orinda

James Riley, 49, Martinez

Kimberly Robson, 37, Berkeley

Francis Gray Scott, 85, Oakland

Virginia Smith, 61, Oakland

Anne Tagore, 54, Oakland

Aina Turjanis, 64, Oakland

Cheryl Turjanis, 25, Oakland

Paul Tyrrell, 61, Oakland

SOURCE: Associated Press

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