Paperwork tripped up air crew in Calif. fire fight

Paperwork tripped up air crew in Calif. fire fight

9 May 2009

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USA — When the fire devastating Santa Barbara broke out, tanker planes had to fly twice as far to load water and retardant because the U.S. Forest Service did not have a contract in place yet to use a nearby airport.

Three aircraft were able to resupply once at the Santa Maria airfield 60 miles north of the blaze but they were later diverted about 120 miles east to Porterville after officials realized a supply contract wasn’t in place at the nearby airport, said forest service spokesman Jason Kirchner.

It’s impossible to know what impact the longer resupply flights had on efforts to stamp out the blaze in its first 24 hours, but being able to land at Santa Maria would have saved time, said John Richardson, air operations branch director for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Four planes made the hourlong roundtrips to Porterville later Tuesday, and six planes did so Wednesday morning before the Santa Maria airfield was open to the aircraft, cutting the length of resupply missions in half.

The contract confusion illustrates the challenges posed by an increasingly longer fire season as government agencies plan for a traditional fire season starting mid-May to November.

“It was an odd time for this to happen,” Kirchner said. “To have something burn this intently at this time of year is rare.”

While officials said they never lacked resources in the firefighting effort, some displaced residents criticized the air response as the fire exploded Wednesday afternoon from a moderate brush fire into a wind-driven inferno that burned dozens of homes to the ground.

“They could have brought in more planes,” said Maria Martinez, 50, who fled her rented home with her fiance. “The manpower was there, but the water drops do the work best.”

Fire officials stressed that the changing weather conditions, and not the lack or delay in receiving help, was the culprit in the fire’s explosive growth that burned 80 homes, forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate and torched more than 13 square miles.

Kirchner said three planes belonging to the state fire protection department were able to land and get supplies Tuesday at Santa Maria Airport, but had to go Porterville for more supplies later that day. The forest service had not completed a contract, which usually runs from May 15 to November 15, with two service providers at the airport, Kirchner said.

The planes continued their runs to Central Valley the following day until noon, when an agreement was reached between the forest service and Santa Maria vendors that allowed for the shorter trips, which usually takes about half an hour to and from the fire.

“We did it as fast as was humanly possible,” Kirchner said.

Once the contract was signed, planes began using the closer airport, but strong winds kept planes grounded at times.

“It is hard to say actually how much we could have done because there was a lot of times when it was open that we didn’t fly any tankers … because of the winds,” Richardson said.

State and federal fire officials have been criticized about their air response in previous fires. During deadly and destructive blazes in the fall of 2007, some helicopters were grounded for a day or more because of bureaucratic delays, while California Air National Guard cargo planes planned for use in firefighting were never outfitted with tanks needed to carry retardant.

No two fires are the same, fire officials said, and there’s a misconception that aircraft can be saviors in every instance.

“Aircraft are not the crux that determines our ability to put fires out,” Kirchner said. “Air tankers, like any firefighting tool, work in the right situations. We rely on people on the ground to put the fires out.”

The forest service said this year that it would only use Santa Maria Airport as needed during the contract period as opposed to full-time, which was the norm over the past two years. Kirchner said the move was done to save costs, but he didn’t immediately know how much money would be saved or whether the contract would be extended next year because of the year-round threat of wildfires across California.

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