Helicopter pilots with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department wanted to conduct aerial water drops on the Cedar fire shortly after it was ignited Saturday but were prohibited from doing so by the U.S. Forest Service, sheriff’s officials said Thursday.
One sheriff’s helicopter was flying back to an air base to pick up a “Bambi bucket” capable of dropping 100 gallons of water when the pilot was ordered to stay away from the fire, said Chris Saunders, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman.
Another sheriff’s pilot said in an interview with The Times that he believed the fire could have been extinguished if an air assault was launched when the pilots volunteered to help and the fire was still relatively small.
But an official with the U.S. Forest Service, which had initial jurisdiction over the blaze, said the Sheriff’s Department’s request to make water drops was denied out of concerns for the pilots’ safety and the belief that the drops would have done little good.
“We found out a long time ago that helicopters with little buckets are not effective in fighting brush fires like this,” said Rich Hawkins, fire chief with the U.S. Forest Service. “No little helicopter with its little bucket would have done much good.”
The request by the sheriff’s pilots, Hawkins noted, came as the sun was setting.
“There is a simple reason we not do night flying operations,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous.” Pilot visibility, he said, is extremely poor in the dark.
The Cedar fire has burned 272,318 acres, caused 4 deaths and destroyed ,483 homes.
As a matter of policy, firefighting aircraft employed by the U.S. Forest Service are grounded shortly before nightfall, which on Saturday was about 5:30 p.m.
At the Ramona Air Attack Base, about nine miles from where the fire started, the first call into dispatch about the blaze in the Cleveland National Forest came at 5:41 p.m. But by that time, the base’s operations had been closed for the night.
The base, jointly operated by the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection provides airborne firefighting for the Cleveland National Forest and surrounding areas.
While aircraft for the U.S. Forest Service were grounded Saturday evening, a sheriff’s helicopter was in the air searching for a hunter who had been lost. At 5:41 p.m., the helicopter noticed a plume of smoke over Cedar Creek Falls, where the blaze originated, according to sheriff dispatch records.
At 5:50 p.m., a sheriff’s dispatcher notified the U.S. Forest Service that firefighting units were needed in the area. A minute later the pilot requested that the Forest Service bring in a “helo” to make a water drop. But sheriff’s officials say the Forest Service did not act.
By 5:54 p.m., the pilot reported to his dispatcher that the fire was about 100 square yards. At 6:05 p.m., the pilot landed and rescued the hunter, who was standing near the blaze. Fire officials suspect it was the lost hunter who started the fire when he lighted a flare, trying to attract help.
Dave Weldon, the sheriff’s pilot who helped rescue the hunter, said he believed the Forest Service didn’t act quickly enough. “We advised [fire officials] to fight it,” Weldon said. “They told us they couldn’t fly an aircraft at night.”
As Weldon and his partner flew out of the area with the hunter, the fire had consumed about 20 acres. Another sheriff’s helicopter pilot by that time was on his way to pick a Bambi bucket to start dropping water on the fire. But that chopper was told to stand down, according to dispatch records.
The Forest Service “insisted that [the sheriff’s helicopter] not respond with the Bambi bucket due to rules, regulations on water drops after the cutoff hour,” according to a 6:17 p.m. sheriff’s dispatch entry.
Hawkins defended the decision to bar the water drops, saying that even if they were made, the fire still would have grown out of control given the dry, windy weather and the accumulation of dry brush.