‘Sunset’ rule stymied early aerial assault on Cedar Fire

 - March 16, 2007, 11:34 AM

In the aftermath of last fall’s California wildfires–the state’s most destructive ever–a “blue ribbon” commission last month heard tacit admission that a state rule requiring firefighting aircraft to land a half-hour before sunset may have allowed a controllable blaze to become a huge, deadly conflagration.

The Cedar Fire, largest of the simultaneous Santa Ana wind-fanned blazes that charred more than 740,000 acres from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border, started late in the afternoon of October 25 from a signal fire set by Sergio Martinez, a stranded hiker. San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy Dave Weldon, who picked up Martinez in his helicopter, said the fire grew from about 50 square yards when he landed at 5:46 p.m. to about an acre when he lifted off at 6:21 p.m. He added that flames did not appear to be spreading rapidly but seemed contained at the mountain top where he had spotted Martinez.

Weldon and his partner, Deputy Rocky Laws, radioed several requests for fire-suppression water drops by San Diego sheriff’s and California Department of Forestry (CDF) helicopters. Another sheriff’s helicopter, en route to the scene with a load of retardant, was recalled when it was less than five minutes from the fire’s origin point to obey a state forestry rule that firefighting aircraft must land 30 minutes before official sunset.

The California grounding rule took effect that day at 5:36 p.m., a minute after the first report of fire in the Cedar Creek Falls area east of the town of Ramona. Thus it prevented CDF and contractor aircraft based at Ramona Airport (RNM) less than 15 miles away from responding. Within 10 minutes of the report, the U.S. Forest Service mobilized 15 fire engines, three hand crews, a bulldozer and a water tender. However, steep terrain and lack of road access hindered the more than 300 firefighters in reaching the fire site. Around midnight, strong northeasterly Santa Ana winds, typical during autumn in Southern California, fanned the fire into a racing inferno.

Mike Padilla, CDF air operations chief, told the commission composed of local, state and federal officials that his agency will review the cutoff time for air-tanker and helicopter operations, and could implement changes by this summer. Padilla said CDF might adopt U.S. Forest Service rules for firefighting aircraft that allow missions to continue an hour later than under state regulations.

Questions Linger

However, in a preliminary report issued in November, Padilla contended that a 110-gallon water drop from the San Diego sheriff’s helo on the Cedar Fire in its first hour would not have slowed the blaze’s advance in the absence of firefighters on the ground. He noted that the grounding rule is safety based, adding that it would not have been possible to stop the fire with air drops alone. “There has to be somebody on the ground to turn over that tree stump and put out that hot spot.”

Unanswered was the implicit question of why, if Weldon’s helicopter could land to pick up Martinez, other helicopters could not have delivered “hot shot” crews to the incipient inferno’s still-small site.

San Diego County sheriff’s pilot Gene Palos challenged Padilla’s conclusion that helicopter water drops on that late Saturday afternoon would have been both futile and unsafe. “I’m not going to go up and do anything unsafe that would jeopardize my crew or myself,” he insisted. “I consider myself a responsible pilot, and I’ll drop water until it gets dark and I feel it is unsafe.” Still another sheriff’s helicopter pilot stated he could have made three or four drops before he would have been ordered to turn away due to failing daylight.

After aerial fire-suppression operations began half an hour after sunrise on the next morning (October 26), CDF, U.S. Forest Service and contractor pilots flew more than 200 sorties from Ramona during the next two days.

With takeoffs every 2.5 minutes, the firefighting fleet of turbine-converted Grumman S-2s, Douglas DC-4s, and OV-10s aircraft dropped more than 200,000 gallons of retardant in the first 95 hours before steadily worsening visibility finally made it impossible to engage the flames. As air tanker and spotter pilots became unable to see through the dense smoke covering the fire zones, the air traffic situation was further complicated by temporary closure of the FAA terminal radar approach control (Tracon) facility at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station when flames reached its antennas. “I was sure there was going to be an accident,” Padilla said, adding that the tanker pilots “did some of the most incredible flying I’ve ever seen.”

Before being declared contained on November 8, the Cedar Fire had claimed 15 lives, burned 280,278 acres, destroyed 2,232 homes and 22 businesses, with losses totaling more than $450 million.