SAN DIEGO – The first helicopter pilot to see the patch of flames that would become the catastrophic Cedar Fire (search) radioed for aerial water drops, but state firefighters rejected his request because it came minutes after such flights had been grounded for the night.
Within hours, the flames cascaded out of control and killed 13 residents between the mountains east of San Diego (search) and the city. It eventually became the largest wildfire (search) in California history.
Southern California was already besieged by flames Saturday evening when the San Diego County Sheriff's helicopter went to search for a lost hunter who allegedly lit a beacon fire.
Pilot Dave Weldon told The Associated Press on Thursday that he saw state firefighting planes on a nearby airstrip as he approached the mountains at 110 mph. He called down for help because his dispatcher had relayed reports of smoke in the area, but got no response.
That was around 5:45 p.m. A few minutes later, he spotted smoke from the fire, then only about 50 yards on each side and not spreading.
As he steadied his helicopter against wind gusts, Weldon's concern mounted. Just before landing, he called for backup, asking another county helicopter to speed to the scene with its 120-gallon water dump bucket. And he urged the dispatcher to contact state firefighters and renew his request for air tankers.
The problem was that under state safety guidelines, no flights are allowed to go up into waning daylight. On Saturday, the cutoff was 5:36 p.m., said Capt. Ron Serabia, the CDF official who coordinates the 12 tankers and 10 helicopters now battling the 272,000-acre blaze.
The sun set that day at 6:05 p.m.
The helicopter with the dump bucket flew within five miles of the fire, before state officials told it to turn back. The air tankers never took off. Weldon was told crews would attack the fire in the morning.
"We were basically just offering our assistance fighting their fire, and they turned it down," said Weldon, who with his partner delivered the hunter to law enforcement officials, who cited him for setting an unauthorized fire. "I was frustrated about it, but I wasn't surprised."
Weldon said the county helicopter wouldn't have been allowed to drop water after dark and said that it alone couldn't have done the job, but he thought a well-placed drop from the air tanker might have extinguished the flames.
On Thursday, California's top fire official said he was not aware of the events and cited state night-flight restrictions.
"If the air tankers and helicopters cannot safely fly based on daylight, they cannot respond," said Ray Snodgrass, chief deputy director of the California Department of Forestry. "We certainly don't want to kill any pilots."
The call from the county dispatcher came minutes after pilots had left the airstrip in Ramona for the night, Serabia said.
Serabia was off Saturday, but said that if word had arrived sooner, a plane could have dropped 3,200 gallons of chemical retardant within eight minutes. What's more, pilots might have slipped in a second flight because once a plane is engaged, it can fly up to 30 minutes after cutoff.
"The aircraft would have been able to suppress the fire, or at least hold it in check," Serabia said.
Still, he said hindsight was pointless.
"It's easy to say 'What if we did this,' or 'What if we did that,"' said Serabia, a 35-year veteran firefighter. "I'm not going to second-guess it. That's what we have to live with — what happened, what transpired from that point after cutoff."
The rules may help save pilots, but they were cold comfort to the son of one man who died hours after the county helicopter was called off.
Stephen Shacklett was killed shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday when he tried to race away from the flames in his motorhome.
Told of Saturday evening's events in the air, his son was incredulous on Thursday.
"The hugest fire in California history," said Stephen Shacklett Jr., "and they had a chance to put it out."