San Diego County officials decry state’s bureaucracy

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO -- Some elected officials here are accusing state fire officials of a bureaucratic bottleneck that prevented water-dropping aircraft from immediately being used as brush fires ravaged the county.

It remains unclear whether additional aircraft could have more quickly contained the fast-moving, wind-driven blazes, but that has not stopped criticism in a region still smarting over the response to its last disastrous fire.

“Four years after the Cedar fire, the bureaucracy still was locking out assets that should have been available,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).


San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman was quick to point out that there were far more water-dropping choppers and aircraft this week than in 2003, but said it was a struggle getting resources into the air in the first hours of this week’s fires.

“I think we got a tremendous number of air assets” up, Jarman said. “The major challenge was in the first 24 to 48 hours, getting them here. It seemed like it took awhile.”

On Tuesday, as the fires continued to push seemingly unabated toward homes, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials discussed the availability of military helicopters to supplement local choppers already in the air. But they said they did not have the department staffers needed to safely fly them.

In a conference call, the officials discussed the potential political fallout that they expected to arise from the decision, but said that the staffing requirement was necessary to avoid midair collisions and could not be dropped.

“We should only fly what we can fly safely,” said John Richardson, the state forestry department official in charge of air operations for the Witch fire.

By late Tuesday, however, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts and local members of Congress had gotten the department to agree to modify the spotter requirement if a “hold harmless” agreement was arranged so the state could not be sued if an accident occurred.


“We got about 70% to 80% of what we wanted,” said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Carlsbad). “We went from ‘No, no’ to ‘OK, as long as we have one spotter for every three aircraft.’ Bottom line: It was a big improvement over Cedar.”

By Wednesday morning, department officials had agreed to send 14 military helicopters and C-130 planes to help fight the San Diego County fires.

The same day, four Navy helicopters dropped 133,560 gallons of water on the Harris fire near the Mexico border. That night, two more helicopters conducted infrared fire perimeter assessment.

Department officials defended their handling of the aircraft issue.

They noted that on Monday, two Navy helicopters dropped water on the Witch fire and two dropped water on the Harris fire -- each with a department spotter.

After the rule was modified, the Navy deployed four helicopters on Wednesday and five on Thursday, all for the Harris fire.

Andy McMurry, chief of operations for the forestry department, said that many of the personnel trained as spotters had other duties, including as battalion chiefs, and were already attacking the fires on the ground. He noted that 54 fixed-wing planes and 86 helicopters were deployed to fight the Southern California fires from various local, state and federal agen- cies.


“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “I think we have made some big improvements.”

After intervention by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), whose home was destroyed in the Cedar fire, five military aircraft arrived late Tuesday at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Base, and a sixth arrived Wednesday, said Lt. Col. George Cardwell, spokesman for the California National Guard.

Cardwell said military aircraft are made available for firefighting duties when civilian planes are unavailable and a request for their use is made by federal or civilian authorities. Only the secretary of Defense can approve releasing them for missions to help civilian authorities, Cardwell said.

However, Hunter said that Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, released the transport planes before getting authorization from the Department of Defense and before receiving a formal request from state officials.