Why didn't Blackhawk helicopters fight Las Conchas fire?
July 21, 2011
we've been covering the las conchas fire every day since it broke out on june 26th. gadi schwartz was one of the first t-v reporters in los alamos. and from day one -- he started hearing complaints about two blackhawks sitting in santa fe -- not being used to fight the massive fire. gadi has spent the last two weeks investigating why the blackhawks never left the ground. he joins us now with more. the hangars - over at the national guard aviation wing- overlook the area where the las conchas fire is burning. crews have been watching the plume of smoke from the fire since day one. they got ready for the call... for the 15 minute flight. but it never came. we've been asking why the helicopters and the fire fighting equipment taxpayers paid for never left the ground. part i behind this door we minute thumbnail 10:10 pm have two of the power buckets and three of the tarantula valve 5 buckets worth worth hundreds of thousands of dollars sit unused- 15 minutes away from the largest fire in state history ... these have never been used. it belongs to the citizens of the state of new mexico, they bought this. this is all bought with tax, state money and government money. "why aren't you guys flying? we haven't been asked to fly on any fire buckets." the las conchas fire has burned now for nearly 4 weeks- it is frustrating our fire is right here on our backdoor and we can't go fight thfire but apparently the forest service has the resources available in the first couple days the fire destroyed more than 60 homes... many of them in cochiti mesa- an area the blackhawk crews know better -- than almost anywhere else in the state. that's where we do our training our fire buckets and where we do our check outs with the us forest service on cochiti pueblo and cochiti pueblo lake. minute thumbnail 10:11 pm weather forecasts show no one could have flown for most of the first day. private helicopter contractors began making bucket drops on day 2 of the fire. and as the fire grew to more than 100,000 acres - as many as 20 helicopters from all over the country had been assigned to fly.- but 15 minutes away--- at the national guard's hangar at the santa fe airport --- the call to load up never came. we kept letting people know that we were ready / / i had 2 helicopters that could have helped more, maybe they just didn't need them and thats their call but they were there they were ready the crews were on standby 24 hours a day we could have run retardant lines and possibly prevented the fire from coming closer to the orchard. i think we could have protected some of the structures that were damaged, but again i wasn't there and i'm not the person in charge, but we were ready if they would have called us. could our helicopters been used more? absolutely, they could have been, they were willing to, they were ready, they could have done amazing things. minute thumbnail 10:12 pm tom, nicole -- so why no calls for help ... getting that question answered hasn't been easy. that's right -- still ahead at ten --- a look at what happened when gadi demanded answers from fire officials. plus, the explanation we were finally given for the blackhawks being grounded as the largest fire in state history roared. the state's blackhawk helicopters were ready to go the state's blackhawk helicopters were ready to go as the las conchas fire raged minute thumbnail 10:13 pm minute thumbnail 10:14 pm on. but the call never came. here's gadi schwartz with the conclusion to his investigation. in this very busy fire season, you'd think the blackhawks would've been used a lot... but that's not the case... in fact, we got a chance to see how effective they can be -- they only time they were called minute thumbnail 10:15 pm in for a fire this season. we found the blackhawk's fire buckets were only used during one of dozens of raging fires this season. that was in raton where we witnessed firsthand how quickly the blackhawks worked... in my hometown in raton, i sent them up on the governors approval i said get them up there before they are minute thumbnail 10:16 pm even requested, and i think that helicopter that went up probably saved 20 houses by it self the first day it was allowed to fly. but even at the track fire our investigation shows the blackhawks spent nearly 20 hours on the tarmac at the raton airport. 20 hour period where i had a helicopter that wasn't able to fly into the fire and start dropping buckets because the forest service had control over the airspace at that time. fire officials say the blackhawks were grounded for 20 hours because it took time to assign them a federally required helicopter manager. during the las conchas fire- an airport manager was not assigned to the blackhawks until july 6th... two weeks after the fire started and the day after we started asking questions after a week of getting the runaround we headed up to the fire public information office in espanola. "can you tell me why the blackhawks on day 2 day three were not, when you guys minute thumbnail 10:17 pm came in and you started fighting the fire, why 2 blackhawks that were fitted out with firefighting equipment, why they weren't called to a fire that was 15 minutes away, no i can't and nobody on this team can tell you that." "during your incident command these people were calling you saying they were ready to fly. why werent they able to fly ? that's great , your trying to make this into something, we don't have those resources. so you guys don't have records of them being on medivac standby or any of those kinds of things? i want security to escort him, now!" "don't touch my camera" eventually we were told one reason the blackhawks were not called to do water drops was because they were on standby to help injured firefighters. we were on standby for medivac and if anybody would have been injured we would have been the best people to call but firefighters were injured and the blackhawks still were not called... it turns out the blackhawks were never officially listed as a medivac air asset for the las conchas fire. and when a minute thumbnail 10:18 pm firefighter fractured his pelvis and broke a leg, another helicopter was ordered to pull him out with a short haul manuever- like this one done in arizona seen here on youtube. the federal forces pulled in their contract sources first. finally - this monday the director of fire and aviation who didn't directly take part in the air attack decisions- but is faliar with the process - agreed to an on camera interview bob leaverton 10:33:46 these blackhawks are 15 minutes away flight time from the fire, why weren't they called certainly closest recources true is number 1 but when we say closest resource what we are talking about is those resources that we have already got signed up. what does that mean because from what we understand the national guard was up the plume was rising over their hanger they were ready to fly, they were making calls, why weren't they able to fly.? "well, they weren't ordered because we had sufficnt resources in the air and quite frankly they just weren't needed.: will i feel bad in 5 years that we weren't dumping in cochiti and dixon? yes as bad as i feel right now but i also am disciplined enough to know that minute thumbnail 10:19 pm when there is a mission and there is somebody in charge that it's there profession and they are going in the right direction we will follow their orders, but always be prepared too for them to call.