Orange Co., Calif., firefighters hindered by errors, infighting

October 29, 1993|By Orange County Register

Miscues and political infighting by federal, state and local officials forced Orange County firefighters to battle one of the state's most disastrous wildfires with dangerously low water pressure and without help from water-dropping aircraft until it was too late.

As the Laguna Beach inferno leveled more than 300 homes and incinerated 10,000 acres, firefighters were hampered by a series of devastating foul-ups.

Military aircraft, which could have been used to dump thousands of gallons of water and chemicals on the Laguna Beach fire and more than a dozen other Southern California blazes, were not activated until yesterday, more than 19 hours after the Laguna fire began. Acknowledging miscommunications, National Guard Lt. Col. David Woolsey said, "We still do not know for sure who is in charge."

Marines at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton volunteered to send water-dropping helicopters, bulldozers and battalions of firefighters to Laguna Canyon immediately after the fire began Wednesday. But Orange County fire officials rebuffed the offer because they had never trained with military firefighting units based in their own county.

State emergency officials, faced with deciding which Southern California blaze was a top priority, equivocated on when to send state planes and helicopters to Laguna. Gov. Pete Wilson said: "It was up to the fire professionals to make the decision. I'm not going to second-guess their decision."

Water flow slowed to a trickle and went dry for some firefighters Wednesday night because pumps stopped when power failed and there were no backup generators for the water system, which has not been significantly updated since 1955.

A 3.5-million-gallon reservoir that firefighters said would have significantly bolstered water pressure has not been built on a ridgetop park because three key City Council members oppose it. They have said it would be ugly and hurt wildlife.

Almost all firefighters were moved to cut short the wildfire's path to Emerald Canyon, thus leaving few, if any, firefighters to stop the blaze from leaping Laguna Canyon Road and devastating 120 homes.

On the federal side, National Guard officials said they did not begin the two-hour-long mobilization of the Mobile Airborne Firefighters until 1 p.m. Wednesday. It is unclear whether there was a mixup or the state never called.

Federal officials acknowledged bureaucratic difficulties.

Delay in dispatching the National Guard's firefighting KC-130s transport planes was caused by confusion and mixed signals among three government agencies and Monsanto, a private contractor that provides the retardant dumped on fires, said Lt. Col. David Woolsey at the National Guard base at Point Mugu.

"It's complicated, very complicated," Colonel Woolsey said yesterday of the command structure. "And it's still not resolved."

The Marines were ready to move immediately with 12 CH53 Super Stallion helicopters from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing., said Sgt. Timothy Paullin, spokesman for Marine bases in Tustin and El Toro.

But Marine equipment was not used because the Orange County Fire Department had never trained with the military units responsible and didn't share a radio frequency, Orange County Fire Chief Larry Holms said.

With military and civilian strategies and radio communications not in sync, an aircraft could have crashed or collided, Assistant Chief Chip Prather said.

"There are safety issues involved in mixing so many aircraft," Assistant Chief Prather said. "Coupled with the media aircraft, it's a real dangerous situation for everybody."

Instead, Orange County firefighters relied on civilian firefighting agencies.

Firefighters did receive assistance from two Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department helicopters -- but they dropped small amounts of water compared with what Marine helicopters can deliver.

Another significant problem for firefighters was water shortage, said Dan Young, Orange County Fire Department spokesman. Orange County firefighter Doug Obermeier, one of the first to arrive and battle the blaze in Mystic Hills neighborhood, agreed, saying that throughout the night he had to let homes burn unabated because of fluctuating water pressure.

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