LOS ANGELES – Unable to slow, much less stop, many of the wildfires that have charred Southern California, some local officials lashed out Tuesday at what they described as state authorities who offered inadequate help and seemed unprepared for a foreseeable disaster.
Most blistering in his critique was the head of Orange County's fire authority, who said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled the massive blaze his crews were fighting near heavily populated Irvine.
"It is an absolute fact, had we had more air resources we would have been able to control this fire," Chief Chip Prather told reporters.
His remarks came shortly before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the rapid deployment of fire crews and equipment across a region where 16 wind-stoked fires were scattered over an area larger than some states. The blazes destroyed nearly 1,300 homes and forced the largest mass evacuation in California history.
Prather said that a dozen firefighters' lives were threatened at one point because too few crews were on the ground. It was not an isolated problem, he suggested, saying the bigger issue was the lack of an overarching scheme to attack several large fires at once.
"What we need to have is a national strategy and a state strategy," he said.
His assessment, echoed by some other firefighters, rekindled a long-running debate over how well California protects itself against a perennial threat.
The state was supposed to be better prepared after a commission made dozens of recommendations following 2003 blazes that killed 24 people and destroyed 3,361 residences. Prather said many recommendations have been ignored, though others, led by Schwarzenegger, said the response was much improved.
"There is much more equipment available, more manpower is available, quicker action," Schwarzenegger said.
The state's top firefighter said Prather, who was part of a group formed to implement the state commission's recommendations, was misstating the availability of firefighters and equipment. Eight of the state's nine water-dumping helicopters were in Southern California by Sunday, when the first fires began, along with 13 air tankers, said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hundreds more firefighters were hired this year.
Grijalva suggested these fires, which have burned the equivalent of about 600 square miles, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
"I don't believe the kind of additional resources he's talking about would have been capable of containing those fires," Grijalva said. "They are fighting nature here. This is not something that can be easily eliminated with a few additional aircraft or firefighters."
Especially when there's such great need over such a sprawling area.
"With 100 mph winds, you can only do so much," said Dave Gillotte, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1014, which represents members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Los Angeles County firefighters typically would have dispatched engines and firefighters to help out when fires started Monday around Lake Arrowhead. But with blazes near Santa Clarita, in Malibu, and elsewhere, the department already was stretched too thin.
Sometimes, resources haven't arrived as fast as promised.
Crews fighting a fire in San Bernardino County have been vastly understaffed but by Wednesday morning, "we're going to have a lot more resources," said Bob Shidelar, a fire operations branch director in from Sonora to help out.
"Crews, engines, helicopters — they're coming in from all over the country," he said.
Helicopter orders placed Sunday shortly after a fire erupted near the U.S.-Mexico border weren't satisfied until early Tuesday, said Steve Heil, a state commander at the Harris Fire. That's when four National Guard Blackhawk helicopters based at Los Alamitos arrived in San Diego.
Two Navy Seahawks were also flying above San Diego County on Tuesday, but Heil said he was having trouble finding firefighters with qualifications to go up with additional pilots the Navy was offering to help direct water drops.
"We need to have firefighting personnel in the cockpit," Heil said. "We're trying to find firefighters to work with them — once we get more resources we can use them."
On the upside, Heil said military C-130 jets outfitted to fight fires would arrive late Tuesday or Wednesday, rather than on Thursday as he was initially told.