House panel presses for answers on Station fire
One official recounts a lost 'window of opportunity' to control the blaze.
Jonathan Powers climbs back up Newman Point after cutting fire line in the area along Glendora Mountain Road, southeast of Highway 39. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / August 27, 2009)
Members of the bipartisan congressional panel spent much of the four-hour-plus session in Pasadena grilling the now-retired commander and current Forest Service officials about the response to the fire, sometimes expressing frustration that they were not getting the full story.
"I have a feeling we're not being told what happened," Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said after posing numerous questions about why the Forest Service did not fill an order for air tankers that would have hit the fire at 7 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2009, when it was still small.
The fire, which broke out a day earlier, became the largest in Los Angeles County history, blackening 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest and destroying more than 200 homes, commercial buildings and other structures. Two county firefighters were killed trying to defend their Mt. Gleason camp.
Will Spyrison, the then-division chief who oversaw the operation on the second morning, said before a standing-room-only, often boisterous audience Tuesday that he made several calls for the air tankers between about 12:30 and 3:25 a.m. and was never told that they would not arrive until two hours after he needed them.
"I knew if I didn't have the aircraft at 7 o'clock in the morning, there's a very short window of time ... between 7 and 9 a.m. was that window of opportunity to make a difference," said Spyrison, whose account had not been made public before.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who organized the panel, asked Spyrison if a 7 a.m. arrival of the tankers "could have made a critical difference in whether this fire got out of control."
"Yes," Spyrison said, "if it was possible to have them there at 7 o'clock in the morning."
He then retreated a bit, saying, "You could play the what-if game" and "it's hard to say" that the tankers would have helped knocked down the blaze before the sun heated the hillsides.
But he later said, "I went back and tried to confirm that aircraft because I knew the sense of urgency.... I needed it there by 7 to be able to, you know, make an effective attack."
Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) asked, "Did you ever receive an answer back?"
"No," Spyrison said. "I asked several times for confirmation."
Spyrison also said he did not know that a separate Martin Mars tanker had been in the air the evening before and was available to dump more than 6,000 gallons of water and gel on the fire but was turned away and directed to unload at another location.
"It would have helped," he said.
Two former Forest Service officials said that the agency let Spyrison down.
"There was a void in overall command and control," said former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Don Feser.
"Spyrison did a remarkably good job [despite] severe constraints," said William Derr, a retired investigator for the Forest Service's California region.
The audience of more than 200, made up largely of people who lost their homes or saw them damaged in the fire, jeered or laughed derisively when Forest Service administrators said that, more than a year later, they still could not identify the person who decided not to process Spyrison's order through a regional center that marshals aircraft from several agencies but instead opted to "leave it open" until later in the morning on Day 2.
Sherman pressed Tom Harbour, the Forest Service's head of fire and aviation, on who was responsible.