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Fighting fires with bullet-pocked air clunkers

Ramona:

Hemet Airport has been supporting aircraft for fires to the north, outside of San Diego County. Gillespie Field in the southern part of the county is launching helicopters.

There are 12 choppers on the Witch fire, eight on the Harris and half a dozen on the Rice fire.

Ramona airport people also are supporting the Poomacha fire in Palomar, the Witch Fire and the Rice fire

Ramona-based retardant crew foreman Gawain Saunders said: "Each member of my team is just as important as the next guy. It's a tough day, but we're all very happy about what we're doing."

So far this year, he's been to fires in Arizona and Utah.

Ray Chaney, the spotter, came in for a half-hour break at noon, grabbed a cheeseburger and told everybody, "the whole county is on fire."

In an interview, he said that when he was up there "it's pretty ominous to see. You're looking at an entire column of fire from the Mexican border to the Palomars."

At 1 p.m. there was a conference call with guy named John Richardson, who had just arrived at Ramona, and was in charge of all air operations in San Diego County. He's the incident command team air operation branch director from CalFire.

He took part in a 45-minute conference call where officials in charge of air resources throughout Southern California talked about their problems and jockeyed for resources. "When you need a priority aircraft, you can't get anyone. I hate going outside the chain of command, but it might be 20 minutes before you can get anyone on the phone," said Richardson.

He's got 5 planes and teams for three major fires. You can make them go only so long, seven hours at a time. Unless he gets a new team, one of the fires will have no spotters this afternoon.

At 12:45, there was a report of a fire at the airport itself. There were no firefighters handy, so they had to call some in. At 1:15, the airport manager wanted to shut down the airport, but the firefighters got there just in time.

Richardson said a lot of the planes coming in and out were 40 and 50 years old; some were military aircraft used in Vietnam. Some have bullet holes. "It's like fighting a fire with a bunch of 1950s Mustangs with a nice paint job."

Aircraft are coming in from other states. Lutz keeps asking for a DC-10. The present planes carry 1,200 gallons, a DC-10, double that.

-- Garrett Therolf

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