Decker fire, 50 years ago today

On August 8, 1959 the El Cariso Hot Shots experienced the first of two fire tragedies the crew would be involved in. The fire was the Decker Fire located in the foothills above Lake Elsinore, California. Seven people were overrun by fire and six lost their lives. Three were members of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.

In 1966 12 members of the crew were killed when they were entrapped on the Loop Fire.

Decker Fire graphicFor more info:

Santa Maria air tanker base sets retardant-pumping record

The air tanker base that the U.S. Forest Service recently downgraded to a part-time “call when needed” base set a new national record last Friday for the most fire retardant pumped in a single day–158,000 gallons, according to an article in the Santa Barbara Independent by Nick Welsh.

Wildfire Today covered the issues surrounding the downgrading of the base in an article on May 12, one on May 2, and another one April 10.

Except for reloading three air tankers, the base at Santa Maria, California was not used on the first day of the Jesusita fire after it was discovered that the U.S. Forest Service had not renewed the contract with the supplier of retardant. Since they could not use the closest base, Santa Maria, every time the tankers needed to reload they had to fly an additional 120 miles round trip to  Porterville. This also required that they be refueled more frequently, lengthening their turn-around time.

The USFS usually has a contract in effect at the base from May 15 through November 15 and when the Jesusita fire started on May 6 they hadn’t gotten around to it yet. But even if the standard contract had been in place, it would not have been in effect the day the fire started.  By the second day of the fire a new contract had been negotiated, effective on May 7, leading to the record-setting use of retardant.

Here is a brief excerpt from Mr. Welsh’s article.

Could the Little Baby Jesus Fire have been bottled up the first day with more drops? Who knows.

In hindsight, Santa Maria would have allowed more and quicker drops, and that undeniably helps. But those in the biz also insist that air tankers don’t put out fires. Instead, air tankers give fire crews the cover they need to put them out. Given the steepness and inaccessibility of the terrain where the fire started — and the conspicuous lack of escape routes — no commanders in their right mind would have allowed firefighters on the ground that first day. Besides, they note, Jesusita spread fewer than 100 acres in that time.

Regardless, the Forest Service contract department needs to figure out that fire season is a 365-day-a-year reality out here, and renew its contracts accordingly.

Amy Asman  of the San Luis Obispo, CA NewTime has also written an article about the issue. Here is an excerpt:

…However, Andrew Madsen, public communications specialist for Los Padres National Forest, said [not using Santa Maria on the first day of the fire] didn’t impede the Forest Service’s ability to fight the fire.

“To link the burning fire with the base is Santa Maria is wrong,” Madsen said. “It’s completely inaccurate, and it’s incendiary to people who were victims of the fire.”

The Santa Maria firebase, he said, was “up and running” within the required amount of time, that is, the first 24 hours of the fire. Before that time period ended, the planes carrying fire retardant couldn’t have been used anyway, he explained, because the 100-acre fire was burning in a location inaccessible to on-ground firefighting forces.

“Air support must be used in conjunction with firefighting from the ground,” Madsen said. “Fire retardant drops must be followed immediately by fire fighting from the ground or else they’re moot.”

And after the first 24 hours, Madsen added, the planes still couldn’t be used because of high-speed winds.

“Thirty- to 40 mph winds will ground aircraft every single time,” he said. “Without the winds, that fire wouldn’t have done anything.”

When asked why the Forest Service didn’t have its contract finalized sooner, Madsen said: “Even if we did, it would have been set for [fire season] May 15 to Nov. 15, so we would have had to set up an emergency contract anyway.”

Still, some community members are using the glitch as an example of why the Santa Maria firebase should be restored to full-time status.

“It’s unfortunate what happened, but it validates the need and the ability of the Santa Maria firebase to support an initial fire attack,” Central Coast Jet Center’s Kunkle said.

It is time for the U.S. Forest Service to admit they made mistakes by downgrading the base and by not having the retardant contract in effect before May 15–then they can move on. Until they do, this debate will fester and they will continue to look like fools, having to constantly defend an undefendable position.

Followup on downgrading the Santa Maria tanker base

On May 2 Wildfire Today covered the downgrading of the Santa Maria, California air tanker base from a full service base to a “call when needed” base.  When the Jesusita fire burned into Santa Barbara 4 days later ultimately destroying 78 homes and burning 8,700 acres, using the Santa Maria base instead of Porterville could have saved 120 miles round trip each time the air tankers reloaded.

S2 being reloaded. Photo: Bill Gabbert

Emergency medical personnel refer to the “Golden Hour”, during which it is crucial that seriously injured victims receive a very high level of patient care. It is also crucial that overwhelming force be used during the first four hours, the Golden Four Hours, of the initial attack stage of a wildland fire.  Quick, efficient suppression during the Golden Four Hours can save many acres, many dollars, and in some cases private property, homes, or even lives.

Closing or downgrading air tanker bases, closing fire stations, or laying off firefighters may cost a lot more in the long run, than the short term dollars that may be saved by short-sighted bureaucrats–some of whom have absolutely no personal knowledge or experience in fire suppression. Fire suppression decisions should be made by firefighters.

Southern California has evolved into having a year-round fire season. With the urban interface they have, their resources and tools need to be geared up all year to contain fires by 10 a.m. the next day. It was a good idea in 1910, and it still is today.

The AP has picked up on the story, and has quotes from Gail Kimbell, the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

The head of the U.S. Forest Service said she is reluctant to overturn a policy that caused tanker planes to fly extra distances while fighting a California wildfire because the agency did not yet have a contract in place to use a nearby airport.

The tankers had to fly an additional 120 miles round trip to obtain supplies — delaying response to the fire, which burned 100 homes in Santa Barbara, forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate and torched more than 13 square miles.

Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said the agency will review the specifics of the Santa Barbara blaze, but added that she would not want the agency to have year-round contracts with private companies to help fight wildfires.

“A permanent fire season? I hope we never get to that,” she told The Associated Press.

Setting up agreements to provide retardant and other supplies “is an expense of public money. We want to be mindful before we commit to anything,” Kimbell said.

At the same time, she acknowledged that global warming and other factors have led to longer fire seasons that now stretch well beyond mid-May to November.

“Fire season keeps expanding on both ends,” Kimbell said, adding that the length of the fire season is a key factor as officials set up contracts with private companies and airports to assist the government in what has become a billion-dollar-a-year battle against wildfires.

“We try to be prepared … should events occur, and we use the best data we have, but you’ll never have all the answers,” particularly when most contracts are signed a year in advance, Kimbell said.

Three aircraft were able to resupply once at an airfield in Santa Maria, Calif., 60 miles north of the blaze, but they were later diverted to another airport about 120 miles away after officials realized a supply contract wasn’t in place at the Santa Maria airport. State and federal officials say it’s impossible to know what effect the airport confusion had on efforts to stamp out the Santa Barbara blaze, but said that being able to land at Santa Maria would have saved time.

Planes made multiple trips to Porterville, Calif., last week before the Santa Maria airfield was opened to the aircraft on May 6, cutting the length of resupply missions in half. The Forest Service had not completed a contract, which usually runs from May 15 to Nov. 15, with two service providers at the airport, said spokesman Jason Kirchner.

The 8,700-acre Santa Barbara fire destroyed 78 homes and damaged 22 others, fire officials said. The week-old blaze was 80 percent contained as of Tuesday, with costs totaling more than $12.2 million.

Another "Blue Ribbon Task Force" Makes Recommendations in California

concrete Homes sign
A sign installed in Harbison Canyon within the footprint of the 2003 Cedar Fire east of San Diego. The fire burned 273,246 acres and 2,232 homes. Photo by Bill Gabbert, 2004.

The second Blue Ribbon Commission Task Force in California since the fires of 2003 presented its report yesterday about how to deal with large wildland fires in the state. The recommendations include more engines, more aircraft, more firefighters, fire safe construction, and better systems for real time communications and intelligence. Many of these were in the report following the 2003 fires but were not implemented because of the state’s fiscal problems.

Click here to download the 106-page report (788 KB).

Here is how the LA Times began their story on the report:

Three months after massive brush fires burned hundreds of homes across Southern California, a blue-ribbon task force on Friday made dozens of recommendations aimed at improving the response to large-scale blazes.

But many of the proposed measures are similar to those made after the devastating wildfires of 2003 — and many of those were never implemented because there was no money available.

And because the state is in a fiscal crisis, it remains unclear whether the new recommendations will fare any better. Several reports over the last decade have said California needs to increase the number of firefighting aircraft as well as boost the number of firefighters.

UPDATE: January 18, 2018. The links above no longer work, but found a copy of a 2004 Blue Ribbon Report about the 2003 fires. It is a huge 21 MB file.