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Stretched Thin, State Seeks Help

Instead of its usual turn providing firefighting aid, California makes demands on other states for the first time since the 1993 Malibu fires.

October 27, 2003|Jill Leovy and Julie Cart | Times Staff Writers

For the first time in a decade, California's considerable firefighting resources were tapped out, officials said Sunday as they sought additional firefighters, as well as equipment and specialists, from out of state.

"People watched their homes burn and everybody was deployed. Nobody was sitting around waiting. It's just that there were not enough resources," said San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger.

With three huge fires burning across the northern, southern and eastern portions of Southern California and several smaller blazes as well, "it's hard to even keep up" with the requests, said Vance Persing, an intelligence officer for the San Bernardino National Forest. "California is in the extreme conditions that Montana was last summer."

Officials said that even with more crews, they would not have been able to stop the wind-driven fires that have swept across portions of six Southern California counties. But more resources might have allowed them to save some homes.

"You could have had an army of firefighters and I don't think you could have stopped the fire doing this much damage," said Fire Chief Jeff Bowman of San Diego, where the Cedar fire has burned more than 123,000 acres northeast of the city.

But San Diego fire officials admitted wishing that they had more firefighters and aerial tankers, particularly early Sunday, when the fire began to spread.

Typically, California plays the role of good Samaritan, sending crews out of state when needed. The state only rarely makes use of the national resource-sharing system to import additional help. The last time California had to make such large requests was to fight the Malibu fires in 1993, officials said.

During a tour of fire lines in San Bernardino County, Gov. Gray Davis said he had asked federal officials for help and had contacted the governors of Nevada and Arizona for assistance. Fire officials noted, however, that under the existing interstate system for sharing firefighting resources, the movement of crews and equipment was proceeding quickly without any intervention from high-ranking officials.

Out-of-state resources began trickling into the state late last week, joining a force that includes about 5,800 firefighters deployed in five counties across Southern California. On Sunday afternoon, California fire officials began putting out thousands of requests for specific aircraft, fire engines, specialists and crews to the National Incident Coordination Center, a clearinghouse based in Boise, Idaho, that is designed to help western states handle fire emergencies.

By Sunday evening, the state's Southern Operation Center had made about 2,800 separate requests to the center for people and equipment.

At least six states had sent help, including four tanker planes and four helicopters -- about half the number requested so far, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. Phoenix sent 15 firetrucks, and additional engines are en route from as far as Washington, still only a fraction of those requested.

Officials said the most pressing shortages fell in two areas: specialists who can provide guidance about where to deploy fire crews, and engine companies equipped with firetrucks for fighting blazes in buildings.

"This has been a fire about protecting structures; it has not been about suppressing wildfires, or protecting watersheds," said Kern County Fire Capt. Doug Johnston, a spokesman at the Grand Prix fire command center outside San Bernardino.

Engines are normally supplied by municipal and county fire stations through mutual aid agreements. But as the fires spread, companies began holding back resources for mutual aid to fight their own fires. The extent of structure fires spread across vast fronts exhausted the ability of cities and counties to cover them, and engine companies from farther away were slowed by driving time, Johnston said.

Specialized fire managers also were in particularly short supply Sunday as firefighting operations proliferated across several fronts.

Each required separate fire commands with its own cadre of specialists.

The specialists in highest demand included meteorologists, fire-behavior analysts, news information officers and planning section chiefs, officials said.

Deployment is not exclusively a function of numbers, Johnston said. "It is also a matter of command and control."

Without enough specialists to determine the best place to send fire crews, "you can overextend" and end up with more firefighters than there are people to manage them, he said.

State officials were also seeking aid from the air. Locally supplied helicopters and the Super Scoopers hired by Los Angeles County were put to work as wind conditions allowed.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) that military officials would supply "anything you want" once California officials made requests, Hunter said. San Diego County officials said they were seeking the military's help.

Officials said that crews from distant locations would not be deployed right away because of travel time and limits on the number of hours fire crews can drive and work.


Times staff writers Seema Mehta, Sandra Murillo and Tony Perry contributed to this report.

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