In their toughest test to date, the vaunted SuperScooper aircraft failed in their mission to douse the wind-whipped Calabasas blaze quickly and prevent its march to the Pacific Ocean, according to county fire officials.

“Our primary objective was to have them attack and knock down the fire in the early stages, and in this case they didn’t do that,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief P. Michael Freeman. “They weren’t able to keep (the fire) small. It went 14,000 acres, all the way to the ocean.”

County taxpayers are paying roughly $1.5 million this year for two SuperScoopers that are being leased during the October-December fire season under a five-year agreement with the Canadian province of Quebec.

Known for their spectacular water pickups skimming the Pacific Ocean, the aircraft were seen making one impressive water drop after another during the Calabasas Fire.

But county fire officials said the performance of the hulking, yellow planes left something to be desired, and that heavy-lift helicopters did a better job in high winds and steep canyons.

Within 15 minutes of the fire’s flash point near the Ventura Freeway and Las Virgenes Road on Monday morning, the SuperScoopers swooped down and unloaded their water payload but didn’t stop the flames’ advance, Freeman said.

As the firestorm raged in Santa Ana winds that hit 40 mph, the planes continued having trouble making pinpoint water drops inside rugged terrain.

“The problem with (planes) is with the drop approach: They have to make sure they have enough clearance and departure space so they don’t crash,” said Jim Holdridge, chief of the county Fire Department’s air operations. “It’s not like they are terrible. They just aren’t good in certain conditions.”

With a new emphasis on extinguishing wildfires before they burn out of control, the SuperScoopers’ performance in the Calabasas blaze already has revived questions over the county’s aerial firefighting arsenal during lean budget times.

After the 1993 Old Topanga firestorm torched roughly 350 homes, homeowner groups lobbied the county to buy the big-bellied planes despite concerns by fire officials that they weren’t versatile.

“Sure there is going to be debate,” said Gordon Murley, chairman of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations and a SuperScooper advocate. “Let’s just make sure people don’t expect these planes to be a magic pill to our fire problems. No piece of equipment is.”

Murley said an earlier version of the SuperScoopers helped extinguish blazes in Laurel Canyon 20 years ago. More recently, the latest models put out blazes in Castaic, San Bernardino and Europe.

“I’m just not sure the Fire Department has gotten over their pro-helicopter mentality. They are protecting turf. They never looked at this objectively,” Murley said. Speaking before the weekend, he added: “And if the helicopters are so effective, how come they haven’t put out all the spot fires?”

A Vietnam-era helicopter used for the first time in a large Southland fire last week proved more effective drenching hot spots burning in steep canyons in the Malibu Canyon area, officials said.

Yet only one of the two Sikorsky-64 copters the county had access to was available Monday morning because one was dropping water payloads in the Big Sur fire, Holdridge said.

“If it had been here, it probably would have helped a lot,” he said. “A helicopter can hover and rise and has much more flexibility than a fixed-wing aircraft.”

The bright orange helicopters can each hold up to 2,600 gallons of water in a specially-rigged tank, compared with a maximum 1,600 gallons for the SuperScooper and 360 gallons for the smaller, county-owned Bell helicopters.

The Sikorskys also were seen working in the heaviest fighting against the Calabasas blaze, pulling their water from Malibu Creek, using a dangling hose that also disperses water as low as 75 feet over flames.

After the Old Topanga Fire, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed an attempt by then-state Assemblyman Terry Friedman, D-Brentwood, and homeowner groups to win $1.5 million to evaluate the Super Scooper’s performance.

Wilson said at the time that the state was trying to reduce its reliance on fixed-wing aircraft and rely more on firefighting helicopters.

At the county level, the plane’s price of $16 million to $20 million has daunted supervisors and fire officials, making the lease-option more attractive.

“I don’t think we’ll ever buy them because they’re too expensive,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Malibu and much of the San Fernando Valley.

The county’s lease with Quebec is on a year-to-year basis, but it was unclear whether the supervisors would re-evaluate their five-year deal which began this year.

“It is a politicized issue, partly because you have a number of vendors who want to market their product, partly because the county is so large with so much different terrain,” said county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. “The SuperScooper isn’t effective in every fire, but it is in some.”

Ray Mathieu, marketing director for Canadair, the SuperScooper’s manufacturer, said he had been told county officials were “extremely pleased with the planes,” pending a post mortem on the total firefighting effort.

“The feedback I have is that the aircraft were effective,” Mathieu said. “But it’s not a panacea: There are certain canyons you won’t bring this aircraft in. In those circumstances the helicopter might be better. Then again, the plane is faster than the helicopter.”

Yaroslavsky said he wouldn’t conclude anything about the SuperScooper from its performance last week, and doubts that any aircraft could stop a fast-moving brush fire once it grows larger than a few acres.

Owing partly to tactics and geography, he noted that the Calabasas Fire destroyed just eight homes and said the Fire Department’s use of the SuperScooper and the helitanker helped limit the damage.

“We are paying $1.5 million for these two aircraft and in the larger scheme, it’s not a lot of money,” he said. “People expect the SuperScooper or helicopter to drop water and put the fire out, but that’s not what happens.”

If anything, Yaroslavsky said, the plane suffers from overexpectations because of its dramatic water pickups and altitude-climbing muscle.

“Because of the way it looks and operates, it has a certain pizazz to it,” he said. “But all of us should look at the facts and not be caught in the pizazz.”

At about $7,500 an hour, the copters, which the county shares with the U.S. Forest Service, are also expensive to use. On Tuesday alone, the bill for them reached about $143,000, officials said.

Though Freeman disputed the SuperScooper’s overall effectiveness, he said it made the most headway with water drops in flatter areas of the Calabasas Fire, particularly on the fire’s eastern flank north of Malibu.

The helitanker was deployed a lot in narrow canyons and could be seen Wednesday shuttling through the Corral Canyon area near where six Glendale and Los Angeles city firefighters were injured.

The SuperScooper’s effectiveness during the Calabasas firestorm seems consistent with the conclusions of a county report scrutinizing its ability to attack wildfires in the early stages.

The report, released in February, concluded that the SuperScoopers either knocked down or totally extinguished 12 of 17 smaller blazes on relatively flat terrain during the 1994-95 fire season.

Like all fixed wing aircraft, however, their water drops were less effective dousing five fires in steep terrain buffeted by winds exceeding 20 mph. For safety and visibility reasons, water-dropping planes must release their loads at higher altitudes in those conditions, though the SuperScooper can uncork its payload as low as 250 feet.

“They have not proven to be an exceptional resource to operate in all terrains of Los Angeles County and in any moderate to high wind conditions,” the report stated.

Scott Franklin, the county’s former vegetation management officer, said he wasn’t surprised the SuperScooper had problems.

“It couldn’t get the water to the head of the (Calabasas) fire because the wind was driving it, and it would have meant going into the smoke and possibly crashing into the mountain,” Franklin said. “They have yet to stop a high wind-driven fire with the SuperScooper. If they took the money they spent on the SuperScooper, they could spend it on proscribed burning, or buying a Sikorsky.”

Copyright Los Angeles Daily News