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Forest Service Official Defends Cedar Fire Response

November 08, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A top official with the U.S. Forest Service on Friday defended his agency's performance in the disastrous Cedar fire by saying that the response to the first call had been "large, immediate and very experienced" but that firefighters had been unable to reach the fire's origin without unduly risking their lives.

Rich Hawkins, the Forest Service's acting chief of firefighting and aviation for Southern California, said that attempting to use a winding, sloping, rutted road to get firefighting rigs to the fire the night of Oct. 25 when it was still small "could have resulted in a massive firefighter mortality situation."

Instead, firefighters decided to let the fire burn until it reached an area more accessible to equipment, he said.

He said that San Diego County Sheriff's Department helicopters, with 100-gallon buckets, would not have made a difference on a fire described as "five football fields of flame" by about 6:30 p.m., when the helicopter offer was made.

The Forestry Service refused the offer of a Sheriff's Department helicopter pilot to dump water on the fire out of concern for the pilot's safety in the gathering darkness. The next day, the California Department of Forestry refused help from Navy helicopters because the pilots lacked state certifications.

"The problem wasn't about aircraft," Hawkins told a news conference. "If we could have driven to the fire, we could have extinguished it. It was the roadless nature of the fire's origin that is the story."

Hawkins said that 325 to 340 firefighters had responded within 30 minutes of the first call. But the closest access road to the fire was a half-mile away and made more treacherous by darkness. As a result, the fire burned "unchecked" for three hours.

Hawkins said the firefighters had hoped that wind would remain mild and that they would be confronted with a fire of no more than 1,000 acres, which could have been extinguished.

But they also knew that "if the wind did surface, we wouldn't have enough firefighters." Once the fire reached an accessible area, Hawkins said, "We made our best effort." The fire, however, spread wildly, ultimately burning 280,000 acres, destroying 2,200 homes and killing 14 people.

A preliminary Forest Service "after-action" report said that the Sheriff's Department had begun ordering evacuations two hours before the fire reached San Diego Country Estates.

Some residents have complained of having received no warning or evacuation order before flames engulfed their neighborhoods.

One of the key areas of inquiry of several investigations into the fire and the response by the Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and a blue-ribbon commission named by Gov. Gray Davis, will involve determining when evacuation orders were issued.

Hawkins said that an initial investigation by the Cedar Fire Initial Attack Fact Finding Team made four points:

* Within two minutes of the fire's being reported, 10 engines, two hand crews, two water tenders and two chief officers were dispatched. Within 30 minutes, six more chiefs from the Cleveland National Forest and more than 320 firefighters were en route, "trying to locate and fight the fire."

* Access to the fire, allegedly set by a lost hunter as a signal to a companion, was virtually impossible. The fire started "in an extremely brushy, very inaccessible area in Cedar Creek" and spread quickly.

* Evacuations were ordered before the fire jumped the San Diego River and began racing toward homes. "The fire was moving so fast it outran our capacity for evacuation and suppression efforts." Hawkins said that, by 10:30 p.m., the Sheriff's Department had started some evacuations. The fire did not reach a neighborhood until 1 a.m. and the first home was reported burning at 1:16 a.m.

* Helicopters' buckets would have been "futile in suppressing the fire under the extreme burning conditions, even at that early stage.... A brave pilot could have lost his life in an ultimately futile effort."

Forestry Service rules that ground aircraft after 6:30 p.m. have become a source of contention. One local television reporter took a helicopter ride this week at that hour over the place where the fire originated and told viewers that there was plenty of time to make a water drop.

As he has in the past, Hawkins said the Forest Service, as a federal agency, is bound by rules made by national officials.

"These are national issues, not local issues," Hawkins said.

As Hawkins was holding a news conference to defend his agency, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy and county Supervisor Greg Cox were announcing a free event at Qualcomm Stadium on Nov. 16 to include a parade to thank the thousands of firefighters who battled the Cedar and Paradise fires.

"I see the firefighters and the public embracing," Murphy said.

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