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Fire planes, supporting actors, get top billing

Firefighters consider air drops 'just one tool in the toolbox.' TV and radio disagree.

September 02, 2009|James Rainey

I flipped from station to station this week, mesmerized by images of flames rolling over the San Gabriel Mountains and by the sound of newspeople making like war correspondents. They talked about the inexorable "march" of fire across the mountains, the "counterattack" by fire crews. But especially, they seemed fixated on the "air assault."

A reporter on KTTV-TV Channel 11 demanded to know Tuesday morning why no water or retardant was being dumped on a Glendale hillside. A KCAL-TV Channel 9 anchor (and at least one of my colleagues) joined many other newspeople in wondering why the sparkling Canadian import, the Super Scooper, hadn't been thrown into the fire fight.

Owners of threatened homes, politicians and newspeople love nothing more than the sight of a giant plane banking over the foothills and dumping a giant load of water or bright red retardant. Everyone seemed quite smitten with the airplanes. Everyone, that is, except the professional firefighters.

"Just one tool in the toolbox," the men in uniform kept repeating, though it didn't seem many of the newspeople heard them. They just kept asking, in particular, about that erstwhile glitter girl of the fire squadron, the Super Scooper.

To be fair, some of the newspeople asked because their viewers (who had seen shots of the bright yellow airplanes seemingly moored to the tarmac at Van Nuys Airport) wanted to know.

Still, can't we take a break from all this flaming militancy?

Not one fire expert I talked to called for more aircraft, all instead stressing the importance of the weather and the ground crews that carve those unglamorous fire breaks, often miles removed from the telegenic air drops.

This week's coverage reminds me of the skewed perspective we get at the start of a Middle Eastern war. The airwaves brim with breathless video-fueled accounts of laser-guided bombs walloping a faceless enemy. We don't see so much of soldiers slogging it out on the ground or the ugly aftermath of combat.

In fires, we get lots and lots of footage of air drops.

On Monday, it was KCAL anchor Mia Lee carrying water (pun apology) for the Super Scooper, the bright yellow propeller plane brought south most fire seasons under a contract with Canadian authorities.

A state fire official had just finished explaining on Lee's Channel 9 that helicopters could make more precise water drops and that the Super Scoopers might merely wash away retardant laid down by earlier airplanes. That didn't stop the KCAL anchor from wondering when the planes would take to the air.

At a Tuesday morning briefing on the wildfires, reporters seemed particularly preoccupied with aircraft, including a Boeing 747, which got its TV close-up Monday with a picturesque drop of 20,000 gallons of retardant along Santa Clara ridge in the Angeles National Forest.

Fire incident Cmdr. Mike Dietrich probably disappointed some when he said he wasn't sure how precise or effective the big jet could be. "Aircraft is always good," he said. "[But] my optimism is reinforced by firefighters putting boots on the ground."

For an extended segment Tuesday morning, a couple of KTTV reporters and an anchor wondered why they weren't seeing more aircraft along the fire lines. At least another anchor, Tony McEwing, brought the discussion back into perspective later when he talked about the importance of crews clearing fire breaks.

Dave Kohut, who helped manage big fires for more than 40 years for the U.S. Forest Service, told me the editorial choices don't surprise him. "If you are handed video of air tankers dropping a big load versus crews sweating it out in the dirty, dusty hills, what's going to make the 6 o'clock news?"

Kohut, who's got a grandson on the fire lines, laughed. It's not that Kohut and other fire veterans don't value helicopters and planes, which can reach remote or unprotected neighborhoods in a hurry.

"The retardant drops are pretty spectacular, but retardant just slows things down. It will not put the fire out," Kohut said. "It's the people on the ground with hand tools or hoses or other equipment who put the fire out."

My Times colleagues Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on firefighting a year ago that included a report on how politicians and fire commanders often face pressure to put planes in the sky. Some fire experts call them "CNN drops," air missions done for public relations reasons.

Eric Neitzel, a government spokesman overseeing social media coverage of the Station fire, said there could be numerous reasons for holding back aircraft in the fire. With much of the fire burning away from neighborhoods, the planes are less needed for protecting structures.

"It's more prudent and cost effective to use them when the fire is really threatening life and property," Neitzel said. "We're not just going to spray and pray."

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