A helicopter drops water on a ridge above Latigo Canyon in Malibu, where… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)
The deadly 2003 cedar fire was raging through San Diego County. Rep. Duncan Hunter, whose home in Alpine would burn to the ground, couldn't understand why military aircraft hadn't been called in to fight the blaze. He decided to do something about it.
Hunter phoned Ray Quintanar, regional aviation chief for the U.S. Forest Service, and demanded that giant C-130 cargo planes be mobilized to attack the fire with retardant.
Quintanar explained that winds were too high and visibility too poor for aircraft to operate. Forest Service air tankers had already been grounded. But, as both men recall the episode, Hunter would not be dissuaded. He told Quintanar to call "Mr. Myers" and rattled off a Washington, D.C., phone number.
"Who's he?" Quintanar asked.
"He's the one with all the stars on his chest standing next to Don Rumsfeld," Hunter replied, describing Gen. Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Quintanar resisted, Hunter called Washington and pleaded his case directly with Myers. Over the next two days, six C-130 Hercules transports were dispatched to Southern California from bases in Wyoming, North Carolina and Colorado. The planes saw action once the weather improved, but in Quintanar's view they contributed little to controlling the fire.
Hunter says he has no regrets about his end run around the chain of command. "California was on fire, I got 'em the planes," he said in a recent interview. "That's my job."
To professional firefighters, though, it was a prime example of a "political air show," the high-profile use of expensive aircraft to appease elected officials.
Fire commanders say they are often pressured to order planes and helicopters into action on major fires even when the aircraft won't do any good. Such pressure has resulted in needless and costly air operations, experienced fire managers said in interviews.
The reason for the interference, they say, is that aerial drops of water and retardant make good television. They're a highly visible way for political leaders to show they're doing everything possible to quell a wildfire, even if it entails overriding the judgment of incident commanders on the ground.
Firefighters have developed their own vernacular for such spectacles. They call them "CNN drops."
"A lot of people do a lot of things for publicity and for politics that don't need to be done," said Jim Ziobro, fire aviation chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Increased use of aircraft is helping to drive up the cost of fighting wildfires. The Forest Service spent $296 million on aerial firefighting last year, compared with $171 million in 2004. Aviation costs amount to about one-fifth of the agency's fire-suppression spending.
Nearly all of the nation's firefighting aircraft are owned and operated by private companies under contract with the government. The meter starts running when an incident commander calls aircraft to a fire. It continues whether a plane is in the air dropping retardant or sitting on a remote tarmac, waiting for visibility to improve.
It costs up to $14,000 a day to keep an air tanker on call and as much as $4,200 per hour to put it in the air. Heavy-duty helicopters, the workhorses of aerial firefighting, can cost $32,000 a day on standby, plus $6,300 per hour of flight time.
"When you deal with aviation on a wildland fire, you have a big bank in the sky that opens up and showers money," said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former Forest Service and National Park Service firefighter who has criticized federal firefighting and forest management practices.
Pressure to use aircraft has grown as wildfires have become larger and more dangerous, and as more subdivisions have sprung up in fire-prone canyons and woodlands. When a column of smoke appears in the distance, frightened homeowners want dramatic action, and an air tanker pouring red retardant on a blazing ridgeline is undeniably dramatic.
As a result, Americans have become conditioned to think officials aren't taking a fire seriously until they unleash a ferocious aerial attack.
"If there's a fire and there's not an air tanker circling in California, people go, 'Oh my God, we're defenseless,' when in fact we're probably not," said Scott Vail, a retired Forest Service incident commander.
Aircraft have an important but limited role in firefighting. In the early stages of a fire, drops of water or retardant can hold the flames in check until ground crews arrive. Aircraft can also douse fires on ridges or in canyons that firefighters can't reach. An all-out aerial attack can save money if it brings a fire under control early.
"You can make or break a fire in one day with the right amount of aviation," said Dennis Hulbert, the Forest Service's aviation chief for California.
But it's a firefighting axiom that "aviation doesn't put out a fire." Only crews and engines on the ground can do that.