10News I-Team Examines Fire Timeline

It is considered one of the worst wildfires in San Diego County history.

But the warning signs were there long before the fires broke out.

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 15, the National Weather Service predicted "elevated fire danger" seven days in advance.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, in an e-mail obtained by the 10News I-Team, the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) checked for aircraft availability from the U.S. Navy. They said Navy Squadron HSC-85 will have one aircraft available.

By Friday, Oct. 19, the NWS issued a red flag warning that predicted "strong, damaging Santa Ana winds with gusts up to 80 mph."

"That meant everything should be in place, everybody should be ready," said Miguel Miller of the NWS.

San Diego County said they were ready.

"I had an emergency meeting with all my staff Friday afternoon where we discussed the plan," said Ron Lane of San Diego County Emergency Services.

CAL FIRE said it was also making preparations.

CAL FIRE documents obtained by the I-Team showed staffing preparations for ground crews as early as Thursday.

But in hindsight, CAL FIRE said it was staffed for a large fire, not a major disaster.

"This was a fire of huge magnitude. I don't think anyone could predict that," said Chief Ruben Grijalva of CAL FIRE.

Fast forward to Sunday, Oct. 21, at 9:30 a.m. -- the Harris Fire was already burning.

Internal CAL FIRE documents 10News acquired called "incident status summary" reports contain information that is a bulletin of sources for the state wide Cal Fire system. It is information sent by Cal Fire personnel at the fire scene. The very first one shows there is clearly something bad going on. It reports 2,000 acres had burned, major evacuations taking place and 250 homes were threatened all within one hour.

In an e-mail Sunday morning, the CAL FIRE information office sent an update to 10News that 45 engines, 5 fire crews, 2 bulldozers and at least 300 firefighters were battling the Harris Fire on the ground.

The I-Team learned that 7 different aircraft were overhead initially. But within an hour, the incident commander had to order 5 more aircraft to battle the fast-moving Harris Fire.

CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Ray Chaney said, "Basically, this was unprecedented magnitude."

CAL FIRE documents described how the fire was exploding. Veteran firefighters could not predict the speed of the fire. They described the growth potential as extreme and the difficulty of terrain as high. Their chance for success? Fair to poor, depending on the winds.

At 12:35 p.m., an inbound air tanker working the Harris Fire spots smoke from the fire that would become known as the Witch Creek Fire.

"It was clear in my discussion with the air fire coordinator early that morning that they were not going to be able to stop these fires. Wind conditions were the worst they had ever seen in recent memory," said Lane.

While helicopters continued to fight the Harris Fire until the end of the day, the air tankers were diverted to the Witch Fire. CAL FIRE considered it a bigger threat to lives and property.

With most fires, the winds would die down overnight, slowing the spread of the fire.

That was not the case for the Harris and Witch Creek fires, as the Santa Ana winds continued to drive them.

Miller from the Weather Services told us, "This probably ranks, if 10 is the biggest we seen, this is probably an 8 or 9."

The fire doubled in acreage overnight

Many 10News viewers wondered where the military was during the crisis.

Bruce from La Mesa asked: "CAL FIRE is still refusing to let all available military helicopters fight the fire."

We find Navy air support began over the Witch Fire with Copters 85 and 86 on Monday just after noon.

CAL FIRE said they asked for their help the night before.

It took Washington 18 hours to approve naval firefighting operations.

Where were the Marines? Chris from San Diego wondered: "Why can't stupid regulations be overlooked, like spotter rules for the Marines?"

Congressman Duncan Hunter blamed red tape, while CAL FIRE said it is a mater of safety.

CAL FIRE said because the Marines have a larger turnover in personnel, it was not cost-effective to train with them because they are shipped off to war zones.

In addition, Marine pilots prefer shooting down the enemy, not fighting fires.

Hunter said, "With a bureaucracy, you've got to keep mowing the grass."

Hunter stepped into the spotlight and demanded accountability.

"Not only was military aircraft not being used, but our own aircraft was being grounded because of wind conditions," said Grijalva.

Paul from Solana Beach asked why, early on, he did not see the "fixed-wing airtankers, only an occasional helicopter."

Pilots of the fixed-wing aircraft would not fly -- not because they can't fly in higher wind conditions, but because in those conditions, water and flame retardant miss targets on the ground.

By early Monday afternoon, all aircraft was grounded by the strong Santa Ana winds.

Chaney said, "One fire like this would be a large, difficult incident. Add five more incidents of the same scale in a small area and it is very challenging."

As the I-Team first reported, the Marines have begun training with CAL FIRE.

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