October 25, 2007 / 10:03 PM / 12 years ago

'Perfect storm' overwhelms well prepared California

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES, Oct 25 (Reuters) - California’s fire-fighting strategy has made big strides since deadly infernos in 2003 but little could have prepared it for the perfect storm of drought, high winds and triple-digit temperatures behind massive blazes this week, officials said on Thursday.

As 9,000 weary firefighters, air tankers and water-dropping helicopters struggled for a fifth day to bring the last of about 20 wild fires under control, authorities said lessons had been learned from previous fires.

"After the first two days, we had almost as many resources in the field as it took six days to mobilize in 2003," said Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters (CPF) union.

Wills said co-ordination, communication and rapid response had improved substantially based on recommendations made after the October 2003 fires which burned nearly 470 square miles (1,200 sq km), destroyed 4,800 structures, and killed 15 people in San Diego County.

Five days of fires this week have blackened nearly 800 square miles (2,072 sq km) and killed at least eight people, most in the evacuation.

"We have learned a lot from past mistakes," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Thursday. "It was spectacular to see how people came together."

One of the most successful innovations was a "reverse 911" system which authorities in Malibu and San Diego County used to make automatic telephone calls to hundreds of thousands of residents telling them to evacuate.

In 2003, firefighters and police went door to door or used bullhorns to alert families, resulting in many of the deaths as people tried to flee on short notice.


Complaints have been heard about shortages of planes and personnel, however.

"Everyone has been working with a bare-bones number of resources. Our tool box is half full. You don’t have as many engines or crews or aircraft as you’d like," said firefighter Walt Williams, who had been working for 36 hours straight on fire lines near the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego.

Authorities said seasonal Santa Ana winds gusting more than 80 mph (130 kph) early in the week hampered aircraft, which scooped water from lakes and swimming pools onto the flames.

"No matter how many DC-10s you have, how many firefighters, how many policemen you have out there, you cannot control 18 fires of the magnitude we have in California," said California state Senator Dick Ackerman, whose Orange County district was one of the many in flames.

Although at least one of the fires was thought to be arson, several were triggered by power lines blown down by hot winds onto brush parched by the driest year on record.

"When you have those conditions come together you know you have the perfect storm for a fire," Schwarzenegger said.

CPF spokesman Wills said Southern California had to come to terms with a new reality.

"Four years ago we were told that the 2003 firestorms were a 100-year fire. If we are going to keep having 100-year fires every four years, we have to dramatically adjust our perception of what the fire danger is in California and provide staffing, resources, equipment and training to meet those needs," Wills said.

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