The Other Air War

Even before he'd learned that his own San Diego County home had turned to ash, Rep. Duncan Hunter was growing frustrated with the way the biggest wildfire outbreak in California history was being fought. Sitting unused on a runway at Point Mugu--just a short plane hop away--were two C-130 tankers capable of dropping thousands of gallons of fire retardant. Other available federal aircraft lay idle. The reason? A tangle of bureaucracy stretching from Washington to Sacramento, Hunter vented as he called in to a San Diego talk-radio show last Monday. "If you're fighting a war and you call up and say 'Do you need more tanks in Iraq?' Tommy Franks would say 'Yes' or 'No'," said Hunter, who was on the phone with federal and state officials from the first hours of the San Diego blaze, trying to mobilize help. "You call up and say 'Do you need more equipment in a fire fight?' and they say 'Well, it's not clear yet'."

As the smoke began to clear after two weeks of devastation that claimed 3,335 homes and 20 lives, southern Californians began asking the inevitable question: could this $2 billion disaster have been avoided? What's clear at this point is that the damage was made worse by a unique combination of factors--some man-made. Certainly, nature was the big culprit: unusually hot Santa Ana winds fanned flames across thousands of acres of chaparral and forest parched by years of drought. But the federal government is taking flak for failing to provide enough money to clear thousands of acres of trees that bark-eating beetles had turned into a tinderbox. And there are those who wonder whether bureaucratic shortsightedness prevented firefighters from using every weapon at their disposal to snuff out the flames.

Ultimately, more than 150 planes and helicopters were used statewide in the fight, but there has been some speculation that the gigantic Cedar fire, at least, could have been doused by a single sheriff's chopper jury-rigged to carry a 100-gallon bucket. After a hunter's flare sparked a small fire at dusk, sheriff's rescuers tried to call in air support to put out the still-tiny fire. But a ban on night flying led Forest Service officials to deny the request. "A few well-placed bomber runs could have saved this place," complained Steve Howard, who abandoned his Crest, Calif., home to the fires after the blaze surrounded him on three sides.

But even vocal critics acknowledge that the air war helped prevent greater destruction. Pilots battled high winds, dense clouds and smoke that made flying difficult and hazardous: debris smashed the windshields of six planes as they dipped low over burning forests. At least California has modern planes; the U.S. Forest Service, which provided more than 20 planes to the fight, has been limping along with older aircraft that until recently included a handful left over from World War II. When two aging tankers fell apart in midair while fighting forest fires in 2002, federal forestry officials began pushing to modernize. But it's unclear whether Congress will cough up the money. Meanwhile, Hunter is lobbying to make it easier to deploy military aircraft to fires. "We need to fight fires like war--go in early with overwhelming force and avoid major damage," he says. If only nature would cooperate.