Help from above just got better

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at

TONY MORRIS isn’t the kind of dude you are likely to see whooping it up at a party. No wild and crazy guy rocking and rolling for attention in the center of a dance floor.

If he’s at the party at all, he’s more likely to be off to one side monologuing in his deep basso about something, well, important. There is nothing frivolous about the man.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 16, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Firefighting supporters: A caption with a photograph of two men in Topanga Canyon that accompanied Al Martinez’s column in Monday’s Calendar section mistakenly switched the names of jet-supertanker proponents Tony Morris and Bob Cavage.

Morris, a 65-year-old Yale graduate, takes life seriously. He’s so low key that it sometimes requires a lot of talking to get his point across, but when he finally does, you come to realize that the man is a persistent campaigner for public safety.


What has occupied his mind for a good number of years is the vulnerability of Southern California’s mountains and canyons to the danger of wildfires. Morris saw it up close in 1993 when one of Topanga’s more deadly brush fires came right up to his front door before it was beaten back.

If you were anywhere near last week’s hellish Griffith Park fire you saw what disaster these monsters can cause. If it hadn’t been for the firefighters on the ground and water-dropping helicopters buzzing around like houseflies day and night, we could have lost not only homes but also some of L.A.’s valuable cultural assets. The Griffith Observatory, the L.A. Zoo and the Greek Theatre were all at risk.

A few days later, another of the state’s icons, Santa Catalina Island, was burning, with historic Avalon in harm’s way.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger heard the clanging of the fire bells and almost instantly ordered CAL FIRE, formerly the California Department of Forestry, to contract for a new jet supertanker that can drop about 10 times more water than the more cumbersome turboprop air tankers. You can thank Morris for that.

He’d heard about the value of high-speed, high-volume, fixed-wing aircraft in fighting brush fires and began wondering how to get them on a permanent standby basis to attack fires in Southern California. Like a scientist locked up in his lab seeking a specific microbe, he dived into the job of researching the problem and then went out to spread the word.

A Topanga resident since 1988, Morris set up a meeting of 60 local residents and organized what became the Aerial Fire Protection Associates. He also showed the community at large a 14-minute documentary he and cinematographer Tom Mitchell had produced that focused on the need for flying supertankers to fight the kind of fires that threatened homes and lives in the brush-choked canyon.


Assisted by many others as time went on, Morris began cornering everyone he thought could help in his campaign to get better protection for the community he had grown to love. In 2004, he and Bob Cavage, a retired aeronautical systems engineer, lobbied before Schwarzenegger’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission and won the OK for what became the Wildfire Research Network.

Meanwhile, Jet Tanker 910, a converted DC-10, had been developed with private funds. It can lay down 12,000 gallons of water or retardant in a half-mile swath in a startling eight seconds. Morris knew that was the baby to have in the skies when the Santa Anas blew, the humidity plunged and flames began flickering in the chaparral.

Now backed by a larger citizens group and members of the media, Morris began a campaign to get it ready for what everyone was calling California’s worst fire season in two decades. Griffith Park and Catalina were warnings that no one could miss, not even the governor.

Schwarzeneggar approved a standby contract with the owners of Tanker 910 for exclusive use in California and simultaneously called for a buildup of the state’s fire-fighting armies. The tanker will be stationed in Victorville and be airborne in less than an hour after hearing a wildfire alert.

When Morris heard the news he called me, the way he’s been calling a lot of people for a good number of years. He was as elated as he ever gets (I could almost see him smiling), and followed up the call with an e-mail message, quoting a CAL FIRE rep as saying, “Tony and Bob, you got your plane.”

So the next time fire roars over the mountains or up the canyons of Southern California, discoloring the sky with flames as high as heaven, and a jet comes blasting in out of Victorville to join an aerial assault with massive water drops, you’re going to have to give a lot of credit to Tony Morris.

The men and women who fight the wildfires that have come to characterize life down here are already my heroes. And while Morris may be an unlikely icon in a pageantry of noteworthy individuals, he deserves a standing ovation for his persistence in bringing a new weapon into the war on an old and powerful enemy.

I suspect that when he reads these words he’ll telephone and say thanks in the deep and hesitant manner that has come to characterize his style. But knowing how much he has done for all of us, I’ll be the one doing the thanking. Good job, Tony. Take a bow.