Wildfires that ravaged 500,000 Southern California acres in October have left emergency-response officials again confronting poor coordination of multiple agencies in responding to large-scale disasters.
Two years after Hurricane Katrina highlighted the national cost of poor coordination and four years after wildfires in the same area did so at the state level, emergency-response officials demonstrated their failure to learn the lessons of those disasters.
"I remember after Katrina, as sad as it is, but it takes sometimes a disaster like this to really wake everyone up and affect things," said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of the fires that destroyed roughly 2,000 homes and took eight lives. He asked a task force made up of fire chiefs and state appointees to identify weaknesses to be fixed in the response to this year’s fires. That task force had the same assignment when it was created in 2003 after massive fires destroyed more than 3,600 homes in and around San Diego — the same region struck this year.
Again, helicopters are at the center of the controversy over how local, state, and federal agencies responded to the developing fires.
Southern California is the cradle of the incident management system that now is supposed to govern interagency emergency responses in the United States. Yet 40 or so different fire jurisdictions were hobbled by red tape and rivalries, slowing their response to fires driven by winds of up to 100 mph that swept flames rapidly across jurisdictional lines. Some officials complained of state rules that require them to exhaust local resources before calling in other assets in the region.
More than 50 helicopters worked against the fires. Operators sent their aircraft into the fight. Columbia Helicopters sent two Vertol 107-IIs, for instance, and Carson Helicopters sent its Sikorsky Aircraft S-61 Fire Kings and Helicopter Transport Services its Erickson Air-Crane S-64s and a Bell Helicopter 214ST. The U.S. Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat Sqdn. 85 (HSC-85) from NAS North Island in San Diego flew its Sikorsky MH-60Ss every day of the crisis.
But nearly a score of military aircraft sat idle, either because their personnel had not trained with state fire crews (HSC-85’s "High Rollers" had, but U.S. Marine Corps units hadn’t and weren’t used until later in the fight) or because the state couldn’t make firefight managers available to supervise their crews in the air. The California National Guard’s newest Lockheed Martin C-130s couldn’t join the fight because they weren’t fitted for firefighting tanks, despite a pledge after the 2003 fires that they would be so equipped.