The Associated Press is reporting that a helicopter spotted the flames that would become known as the Cedar Fire and called for water drops that could have extinguished or hindered the spread of the fire in those initial hours, but the request was nixed because the call came minutes after state safety regulations barred flights.
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 he 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 can go up into waning daylight. On Saturday, the cutoff was 5:36 p.m., said California Department of Forestry Capt. Ron Serabia, 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, Weldon said. 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.
This news, of course, is drawing some outrage and second-guessing from the usual quarters -- talk radio mainly -- but it does illustrate the occasional problems with "safety regulations" and zero-tolerance policies. The regulations become a substitute for individual judgment. On the flip side, the reason regulations are put in place is because of an individual's poor judgment in the past.
The more likely lessons learned from this week's fires will be related to environmental/endangered species regulations and forest policies that prevent the clearing of brush and the thinning of forests.