CAP flying in support of Calif. wildfires mission

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. - -- Now in their second week of round-the-clock operations, the Civil Air Patrol's California Wing members are conducting reconnaissance flights in support of various federal, state and local agencies as part of the response to deadly wildfires that have consumed more than 500,000 acres in seven Southern California counties.

The California Wing was activated Oct. 26, five days after the fires began, in response to an Air Force request. The CAP mission' s incident commander, Maj. Robert Keilholtz, said members have been assigned to search for possible victims in areas not easily accessible by ground crews, and to take aerial photographs of various buildings, facilities and towers used by both the military and numerous civilian agencies. The photographs provide vital damage assessment information to emergency services providers on the ground.

Initially 30 CAP members flew seven CAP aircraft -- six Cessna C-182s and one Gippsland G-8 Airvan -- from Gillespie Field in El Cajon. Flight and support crews responded from as far north as Fresno, Calif.

Flight operations continue this week from CAP bases in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties.

"Everyone in California Wing should be proud of the effort we've put in so far while remembering that we're a long way from being finished with our work," said 1st Lt. Tolga Tarhan, incident commander-trainee. "Our imagery was so well-liked by the state and the Air Force that we are now receiving several more major taskings - some of them are high-priority and need to be done ASAP, and some are long-term, potentially requiring weeks to complete. There are also smaller taskings on the way, such as transportation of equipment."

Many California CAP members also have been working at the Regional Emergency Operations Center-Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, Calif., in administrative capacities since being activated at the start of the fires, said 1st Lt. Matthew Scherzi, public affairs officer for Falcon Senior Squadron 40 of the California Wing. "We in California Wing are supplying three members per 12-hour shift, 24 hours a day, seven days a week until further notice," he said.

Scherzi said the nearly 80 CAP members involved in the wildfires mission range from emergency services-certified cadets to a former wing commander. "By doing administrative duties, CAP frees up firefighters and other state and local emergency responders for even more critical duties," he said. "Several members have worked multiple shifts over the last week."

The California Wing of the Civil Air Patrol has a long-standing relationship with the REOC and the Governor's Office. The wing transported equipment during the 1993 wildfires that destroyed more than 1,000 homes in six counties in Southern California. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots and for several weeks afterward, CAP members provided 24-hour communications assistance at the REOC at Los Alamitos. They also were involved in several missions during the Northridge Earthquake in 1994 in which they supported the Red Cross for 60 days.

Keilholtz, who lives in Solana Beach, Calif., was one of hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians who fled their homes last week ahead of more than 20 wildfires fueled by the region's fierce Santa Ana winds. At the height of the fires, almost 1 million people were under evacuation orders. More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed. At least 14 people have died.

Another evacuee, Maj. Joseph Di Mento of Fallbrook Senior Squadron 87, said, "My family was fortunate to have escaped the conflagration in and around Fallbrook, while others lost everything they had in the fires. I'm just happy to have had people there to help us."