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On the Battlefield, Nature Holds Off Ground and Air Assault

Tactics: Authorities say they mobilized planes and battalions of firefighters quickly. But conditions made it impossible to stop blaze from reaching ocean.


Airplanes and air cranes. Trucks and helicopters and battalions of firefighters.

Los Angeles County was on alert and ready for this wildfire, just waiting to throw everything at its disposal at the blaze. And that it did, starting precisely at 10:34 a.m. Monday when the first call came in to the county Fire Department.

But even all of that equipment, and the rest of the impressive arsenal of the nation's largest county wasn't enough this time--not even with such a quick jump off the mark and not with the Santa Ana winds gusting to more than 35 mph through the hardscrabble crevices of the county's northwestern canyons.

Wildfires are a lot like wars, weary fire officials said late in the evening, long after the blazes reached the ocean and continued to burn out of control. You can plan and plan and plan, they conceded, but you can never really be ready for them. Each one is different, and changing by the minute.

"It is a battlefield," firefighter Dave Crall said. "We are fighting flames that are out of control. We'd like to think we have control, when a lot of times we really don't."

Ever since the devastating conflagration that was the Calabasas-Malibu fire of 1993, county officials have studied how best to respond to fires in such hard-to-reach and hard-to-negotiate terrain.

"We basically plan for it every day," said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Steve Valenzuela. "But no amount of fire equipment can stop a fire when it is in tinder-dry brush and when it is located in inaccessible areas like this fire is."

For months, county fire officials have warned that this fire season is potentially more dangerous than any other since they began measuring the dryness of the brush in the mountains back in 1981. This year, the brush has been worse than bone dry. All that was needed was a strong wind to carry a spark, and that last ingredient was provided in abundance Monday morning.

"Today we got the winds," Valenzuela said ruefully, "and the winds were the missing piece of the puzzle."

Within minutes, 100 firefighters were at the scene, along with five fire engines, four other county fire trucks, four helicopters, two planes, a bulldozer and other machinery. Within half an hour, a second alarm was called, and another 100 firefighters were dispatched to the origin of the fire near the intersection of Las Virgenes Canyon Road and the eastbound Ventura Freeway.

Just like on a battlefield, order was imposed on chaos at first. But only temporarily.

Each battalion chief--in charge of five engine companies and 20 firefighters--suddenly became a strike-team leader at the fire scene. Each strike team followed a particular flank of the fire, trying to corral it before it spread and jumped a canyon or two.

Each team reported to a branch leader, who surveyed a larger area and in turn reported to a division chief, who got his orders from to the incident commander, Assistant Chief James Ryland. And Ryland, of course, reported to Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman, who coordinated mutual aid with other fire departments.

The county's primary weapons, however, attacked from above from the outset: two water-dropping planes designed to douse the flames before the wind could carry chunks of burning brush as far as two miles away.

The bright yellow Super Scoopers, leased from the government of the Canadian province of Quebec at a cost of $1.2 million this year, can each drop more than 1,400 pounds of water at a time on a blaze before heading out to sea to scoop up more water in their catch basins and head back to the fire.

They buzzed in and out of the fast-spreading fire zone until they were grounded at nightfall. But their effectiveness was hampered throughout the day by high winds and their lack of maneuverability in steep canyon areas.

Also pulling heavy duty was a water-dropping helicopter known as a heli-tanker air crane that was yanked away from a Big Sur fire at 1 p.m., and five water-dropping Bell 412 helicopters from the city and the county that can each drop 360 gallons of water at a time on a blaze, fire officials said.

With cover from above, firefighters fanned out in all directions, trying to "pinch it from the flanks" to keep the blaze on a narrow path, Valenzuela said.

"The wind was blowing so hard if we went out there and chased it with hand tools we'd be chasing it up one hillside and down another," said firefighter Crall.

So, their top priorities were evacuation of residents in harm's way and saving homes, he said.

After that, they could only try to contain the blaze and keep it from barreling down myriad other hillsides in all directions toward Pacific Coast Highway. They didn't succeed.

By afternoon, firefighters and equipment were streaming in from around the county. By evening, they were coming from around the state.

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