Grounded Military Helicopters Blamed On Lack Of 'Spotters'

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
San Diego Union-Tribune
November 3, 2007 By Tony Manolatos, Staff Writer
Getting military helicopters into the air during a firestorm became a top priority for San Diego County leaders after the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires.
But when winds and flames blew into Southern California last week, the plan the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had devised fell apart.
As two fires raged out of control Oct. 21, at least six military helicopters waited on the ground in San Diego County. Several state and local aircraft were flying, but the military helicopters weren't because of a requirement that “spotters” be on board.
It wasn't until the afternoon of Oct. 22, as more fires erupted and flames moved into heavily populated areas such as Rancho Bernardo, that two Navy Seahawks were allowed to join the fight and a National Guard helicopter was sent to help evacuate people.
Cal Fire blamed the delay on a shortage of military helicopter managers, better known as spotters – trained wild-land firefighters who help military pilots position water drops and communicate with firefighters in the air and on the ground.
Cal Fire created the spotter program three years ago in response to sharp criticism of its decision not to use military aircraft during the 2003 wildfires. The state fire agency, which cited safety and tactical concerns for that decision, assured local officials that the problem had been solved.
Spotters aren't needed on larger military planes because they fly high above the aerial attack. But spotters would be required on the workhorse helicopters that fly close to the ground, lugging massive buckets of water from ponds and lakes.
Interviews with more than a dozen people responsible for coordinating air and ground operations during last week's wildfires revealed that the spotter program failed at just about every turn.
“At the highest level of the state, this system has broken down – for the second time,” said county Supervisor Ron Roberts, who served as the county's spokesman during the fires and was among dozens of officials who attended daily strategy sessions at the county's Emergency Operations Center.
Facing mounting criticism, Cal Fire officials altered their policy three days into the firestorms to allow one spotter to orchestrate water drops for a squadron of three aircraft. That change put four additional Navy helicopters into the air.
Roberts said that despite daily requests, only three spotters were activated in San Diego County.
Roberts became more infuriated when he learned last week that five spotters employed by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department had been available but were never called. It turned out that the five are certified by Cal Fire to fly on privately owned helicopters hired by the state, but not on military aircraft.
Battalion Chief Ray Chaney, who runs air operations for Cal Fire-San Diego, said 39 military helicopter managers are spread across the state. He's not sure how many are based locally.
“Would I like more? Sure. But would I like to compromise the training and the standards we have? No,” Chaney said. “We have a very good program, but it's one of the things we're looking at as part of our own critical review.”
Navy officials agree that spotters are useful.
The radios on Navy helicopters don't work with the radios firefighters carry on the ground, said Capt. Matt Brown, spokesman for Navy Region Southwest. Spotters carry portable radios that allow them to bridge the gap. They also have at least two or three years' experience as pilots and wild-land firefighters, Chaney said.
“That's what's key to keeping the military aerial crew safe and getting the most out of the water drops,” he said.
But as homes burned across the county, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and other lawmakers urged Cal Fire to dump the spotter program entirely.
In Florida, another fire-prone state, no such requirement exists.
Instead, the Florida Division of Forestry, the state fire agency, has an arrangement with the Florida Army Air National Guard to provide at least six Black Hawks. The copters can quickly be transformed into firefighting machines that carry 700-gallon buckets, said Bob Duty, air tactical coordinator at the forestry division. The National Guard pilots train twice a year with firefighters, and their radios are compatible.
“They come in and practice bucket drops,” Duty said. “They're very good.”
Cal Fire has trained Navy and National Guard pilots, but there isn't a system in place to ensure that these pilots aren't deployed to Iraq or other places.
Unexpected resistance
Heading into last week's fires, Roberts was well aware of the lack of coordination between Cal Fire and the military. He still remembers what he was told in 2003.
Cal Fire officials “told us it was unsafe” to deploy military aircraft while those fires were raging, Roberts said. “They said: 'They can't come in – period. This is our fire to fight, not theirs.'”
Roberts said he never expected to run into such resistance four years later as he drove to the emergency operations center to confront a new set of wildfires.
That first day at the operations center was confusing at best, he said.
Officials were still assembling when alarming media reports and updates from the field started coming in. Initially, several leaders, including the governor, said strong winds grounded some aircraft, though it's now generally agreed that other factors were responsible for grounding the military helicopters in San Diego.
The first indications that the issues from 2003 hadn't been resolved surfaced early Oct. 22 in closed-door-meetings held around a conference table at the operations center.
Roberts asked why the military wasn't making water drops.
He said a Cal Fire representative pulled him aside and told him the military's equipment wasn't working because salt water had corroded the buckets used by the aircraft.
On Oct. 23, however, Roberts said the blame was shifted to a lack of spotters.
Roberts had never heard the term, so Deputy Chief Steve Heil, Cal Fire's point person at the operations center, provided a quick explanation.
“When I heard: 'It's not the buckets. You gotta have spotters, and we don't have any spotters.' That's when I really lost my temper,” Roberts said.
Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, was among those who heard the exchange among Roberts, Heil and other Cal Fire officials.
“(Roberts) erupted. He dressed them down, probably for a good 10 minutes,” said Sainz, who also was frustrated with the answers Cal Fire was providing.
Roberts said that Heil, who didn't return calls seeking comment for this story, seemed to be trying to help.
“I think someone with Cal Fire was stonewalling him,” Roberts said. “He was trying to round up this assistance for us. He couldn't call these spotters up. He was dependent on the leadership in Sacramento, and he wasn't getting any good answers. He was very uncomfortable having to tell me this every day.”
Late on the night of Oct. 23, Republican Reps. Hunter, Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray began grilling Heil at the operations center. Unhappy with the answers they were receiving, they told Heil to get his boss, Cal Fire Director Ruben Grijalva, on the phone.
Grijalva told them that as many as 19 military helicopters in Southern California were ready to fly. Some had been ready Oct. 21, but they didn't take off because there weren't any spotters.
One of the problems may be that the people Cal Fire trained as spotters also have other essential firefighting jobs and could never be made available to the military during an emergency, said Kurt Bardella, Bilbray's press secretary.
“Which is why the congressman and others wanted the spotter agreement to be waived, so we could use all of our available resources to fight the wildfires,” Bardella said.
Grijalva amended the spotter requirement the next morning.
When asked about the lack of spotters, Cal Fire's director of communications, Mike Jarvis, said Oct. 22: “We will not respond to minutiae on air operations at this time. We're still in the middle of an operation.”
Later in the week, Jarvis said Cal Fire is compiling a detailed air-operations report that will show the type and number of aircraft used to fight each fire. He said the report also will detail how many military helicopters were grounded, along with when and why.
Copters on standby
If more military copters had been worked into the airspace above the fires, they quickly would have been put to use, said Javier Mainar, San Diego's assistant fire chief.
“As the Witch fire burned into Rancho Bernardo, we were asking Cal Fire for air support and additional strike teams (on the ground), and we were told nothing was available,” Mainar said. “I'm not aware of any air drops by Cal Fire or the military in the city on Day 1 and Day 2.”
During the Cedar fire, then-Fire Chief Jeff Bowman circumvented Cal Fire and used Navy helicopters to drop water in and around Scripps Ranch.
Cal Fire officials say things will be different when the next fire arrives.
With Santa Ana winds in today's forecast, the California National Guard has six helicopters and crews on standby at Los Alamitos Army Air Field in Orange County, and Cal Fire has positioned spotters there and at other military bases.
“There will be no aircraft on the ground for lack of managers,” Jarvis said.