Fire Chief Blasts State Slow Response U.S.-Mexico Border 'Harris Ranch' Fire
Associated Press (2007-10-23) Michael Blood
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Fire chief says state unprepared for deadly Calif. blazes
By MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
(10-23) 19:33 PDT Los Angeles (AP) --
Unable to slow, much less stop, many of the wildfires that have charred
Southern California, some local officials lashed out Tuesday at what they
described as state authorities who offered inadequate help and seemed unprepared for a
Most blistering in his critique was the head of Orange County's fire
authority, who said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled the massive
blaze his crews were fighting near heavily populated Irvine.
"It is an absolute fact, had we had more air resources we would have been
able to control this fire," Chief Chip Prather told reporters.
His remarks came shortly before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the rapid
deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region where 16 wind-stoked
fires were scattered over an area larger than some states. The blazes destroyed
more than 1,600 homes and forced the largest mass evacuation in California
Prather said that a dozen firefighters' lives were threatened at one point
because too few crews were on the ground. It was not an isolated problem, he
suggested, saying the bigger issue was the lack of an overarching scheme to
attack several large fires at once.
"What we need to have is a national strategy and a state strategy," he said.
His assessment, echoed by some other firefighters, rekindled a long-running
debate over how well California protects itself against a perennial threat.
The state was supposed to be better prepared after a commission made dozens
of recommendations following 2003 blazes that killed 24 people and destroyed
3,361 residences. Prather said many recommendations have been ignored, though
others, led by Schwarzenegger, said the response was much improved.
"There is much more equipment available, more manpower is available, quicker
action," Schwarzenegger said.
The state's top firefighter said Prather was misstating the availability of
firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state's nine water-dumping
helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along
with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department
of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hundreds more firefighters were hired this
Grijalva suggested these fires, which have burned the equivalent of about
600 square miles, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
"I don't believe the kind of additional resources he's talking about would
have been capable of containing those fires," Grijalva said. "They are fighting
nature here. This is not something that can be easily eliminated with a few
additional aircraft or firefighters."
Especially when there's such great need over such a sprawling area.
"With 100 mph winds, you can only do so much," said Dave Gillotte, president
of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1014, which
represents members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Los Angeles County firefighters typically would have dispatched engines and
firefighters to help out when fires started Monday around Lake Arrowhead. But
with blazes near Santa Clarita, in Malibu, and elsewhere, the department
already was stretched too thin.
Sometimes, resources haven't arrived as fast as promised.
Crews fighting a fire in San Bernardino County have been vastly understaffed
but by Wednesday morning, "we're going to have a lot more resources," said
Bob Shidelar, a fire operations branch director in from Sonora to help out.
"Crews, engines, helicopters — they're coming in from all over the country,"
Helicopter orders placed Sunday shortly after a fire erupted near the
U.S.-Mexico border weren't satisfied until early Tuesday, said Steve Heil, a state
commander at the Harris Fire. That's when four National Guard Blackhawk
helicopters based at Los Alamitos arrived in San Diego.
Two Navy Seahawks were also flying above San Diego County on Tuesday, but
Heil said he was having trouble finding firefighters with qualifications to go
up with additional pilots the Navy was offering to help direct water drops.
"We need to have firefighting personnel in the cockpit," Heil said. "We're
trying to find firefighters to work with them — once we get more resources we
can use them."
On the upside, Heil said military C-130 jets outfitted to fight fires would
arrive late Tuesday or Wednesday, rather than on Thursday as he was initially