The fires burning in southern California impacted virtually every aspect of aviation.
The fires began the weekend of Oct. 20 and grew exponentially when pushed by gale-force Santa Ana winds. Fire officials stated that one of the fires was started by a downed power line and at least one other may have been set deliberately, but most started when burning embers landed on tinder-dry vegetation and houses. Unlike during previous fires, the winds did not calm down at night but continued to blow, pushing the fires along.
As this issue was going to press, the fires were still burning over a seven-county area and firefighters were still working to achieve full containment of the flames. Fire officials warned that another increase in wind could kick the fires back up. At least 14 people were killed by the fast moving flames and a half-million were evacuated as the fires moved through neighborhoods. Others chose to stay to defend their properties, using garden hoses or surplus fire hoses and water drawn from backyard swimming pools. One estimate is that 500,000 acres and at least 2,700 structures were burned. At its peak, some 800,000 firefighters were deployed to combat the blazes.
Several airports in the region are being used as staging areas for water-dropping helicopters and air tankers, as well as makeshift camps for personnel.
“We have five heavy-lift helicopters that are staging out of here,” said Wayne Reiter, manager of Brown Field (SDM) southeast of San Diego on day three of the fires. “We also had a DC-9 loaded with 10,000 pounds of food come in during the middle of the night. That food was destined for Qualcomm Stadium, which was one of the major evacuation shelters in the city. It came here because we are the only airport, with the exception of the international airport, that can handle an airplane that size.”
Reiter noted that he had been in contact with fire officials who inquired about using property on the airport as an evacuation center for a local prison if need be.
At nearby Montgomery Field (MYF) the crosswind runway was closed to create a staging area for the National Guard, which was deployed Oct. 22 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fight the fires.
“We have approximately 1,300 troops with tents and PortaPotties and the like camped out on the approach end of runway 05/23,” said Airport Manager Ernie Gesell. “But other than that the airport remains operational. We have the city of San Diego fire department helicopter staging out of there as well as the police department helicopter.”
With resources stretched to the limit, some fire officials expressed frustration, as did Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather, who told reporters that a quick deployment of aircraft when the fire began could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.
“It is an absolute fact,” he said. “Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire.”
However, Gov. Schwarzenegger discounted the statement, noting that the winds were too strong when the fire began to use aircraft safely.
“The winds were blowing at 50 knots and the FAA and the other people who make these decisions didn’t want the pilots to go,” agrees Robert Gaither, who owns High Class Aviation at Ramona Airport at Ramona, Calif. “The fires began just east of here on Oct. 21. The airport is always home to four air tankers. Right now we have a total of 10, flying in and out.”
Gaither, who manufactures the Super Hornet Light Sport Aircraft, noted that the flames got within a few hundred feet of his home and his hangar, but were driven back by firefighters.
“They knew they had to protect this airport,” he said. “The firefighters and airplanes are the only hope to save San Diego. They’ve been in the air non-stop since the winds calmed down. Even when the winds were blowing, the pilots wanted to go.”
Unmanned aircraft outfitted with high-tech imaging equipment were utilized when it was too dangerous for manned aircraft to perform reconnaissance.
The heavy smoke and temporary flight restrictions kept most GA pilots grounded during the course of the fires, although some airports reported that the owners of private aircraft were fleeing the area by air as the freeways were jammed.