Two helicopters that Orange County fire officials believe could have prevented the Laguna Beach fire disaster have sat grounded for years because cash-strapped county officials opted not to spend the $300,000 to $500,000 each to refurbish them--a bargain price compared to the $435 million in damage wrought by the Oct. 27 inferno.
"We didn't think we could afford it at the time," County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider said Friday. "I hate to see people now pointing fingers at each other. But I think it's something that we'll reconsider in the very near future."
The county obtained the Vietnam-era Huey helicopters four years ago as part of a military surplus program administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry. The cost to the county: free. All the county had to do was pay to convert the helicopters into "initial attack" aircraft whose primary mission would be to ferry water--up to 400 gallons at a time--into hard-to-reach terrain during crucial moments of a wildfire.
After reviewing dispatch records of the Laguna Beach blaze, fire officials this week said they believe the fire was "manageable" during its early stages and could have been contained if firefighters had support from precisely such low-flying, water-toting choppers.
"The Laguna Lakes were right there and that would have been a good place for the helicopters to dip into," said Assistant County Fire Chief Chip Prather, who oversaw operations during the fire.
Indeed, 12 minutes into the fire, flames had scorched only about five acres in Laguna Canyon, according to Orange County Fire Department records released this week. But that was when firefighters on the two most important flanks of the fire ran short of water. Thirty-five minutes later, 300 acres had been consumed and firefighters were retreating to defensive positions.
County Fire Capt. Ron Blaul said the helicopters would have played a "critical" role in helping firefighters corral the flames because they could have unloaded thousands of gallons water on the fire just when it was beginning to spread and ground crews had run dry. "It probably would have been a different fire," Blaul said.
"If we had had the helicopters here in the county," said Prather, "and they could have arrived at the fire when I did--about 10 minutes into it--then I think we would have had a good chance."
Instead, one of the choppers sits in a yard in the California Department of Forestry's Mobile Equipment Facility in Davis, where it has been draped in a tarp for four years, waiting for Orange County officials to pick it up.
"It's in our storage facility and, yes, it's still earmarked for Orange County," said Olis Kendrick, the Forestry Department's chief of air operations.
"We won't be able to hold it forever," Kendrick said. "The U.S. Forest Department will eventually start asking questions. They'll say, 'Let's make it available for somebody else to use.' That's the idea--to reuse Department of Defense equipment."
In fact, that is what has happened to Orange County's other helicopter. After sitting idle for two years, officials in 1991 gave it to San Bernardino County, which already had a contingent of initial attack helicopters.
San Bernardino Fire Capt. Kelly Goulette said his agency has faced tight budgets too, but it nonetheless has been slowly refurbishing the chopper originally destined for Orange County. It should be ready to fly by the 1994 fire season, he said.
"You can be a lot more effective with helicopters," Goulette said. In fact, the same day of the Laguna Beach fire, "we were able to lessen the damage that the Mill Creek fire caused--largely because of these types of helicopters."
While the Laguna fire burned out of control, damaging or destroying more than 400 homes, firefighters in San Bernardino County using initial attack helicopters held the Yucaipa (Mill Creek) fire in check. That fire burned 4,860 acres and destroyed about half a dozen homes.
According to fire officials, several military surplus helicopters became available in 1989 through the Congress-sanctioned Federal Excess Property Program. The California Department of Forestry asked several counties if they wanted one. The aircraft would be provided free, but the counties had to pay $300,000 to $500,000 to outfit each helicopter for firefighting. A brand-new firefighting-equipped helicopter costs $3 million to $4 million.
At the request of Orange County Fire Chief Larry Holms, the Board of Supervisors voted in 1989 to acquire two of the helicopters.
In his "Helicopter Program Proposal" of 1989, Holms said the aircraft would fill "a critical gap" in protecting Orange County's 511,000 acres--much of which has grassland abutting residential areas.
But the Board of Supervisors and the Fire Department never followed up.