As walls of flame from the massive Station blaze closed in on their remote compound, the mission of the crews at Fire Camp 16 suddenly changed from protecting their corner of the Angeles National Forest to saving their own lives.
Two Los Angeles County firefighters approached the front line of the blaze in a heroic attempt to stop its march toward the camp high in the San Gabriel Mountains and were killed as the flames engulfed the landscape, officials say.
Now, four months after Capt. Tedmund Hall and Spc. Arnaldo Quinones became the only fatalities of the fire, new details of the tragedy have emerged, along with unsettling questions of how and why the crews were allowed to stay in harm’s way, and whether commanders had failed to grasp in time the danger the camp faced.
“You hate to second-guess yourself, but if we could have known what would happen, we would not have been up there,” said one Camp 16 firefighter, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “We’re not the Marine Corps. It’s not like we’re going to stay until the death.”
A U.S. Forest Service e-mail written shortly after the deaths addresses the hazards of the fire and refers to the loss of “two people who stayed too long.” The e-mail was obtained by The Times along with other records that show that the camp crews were not formally assigned to the Station operation and thus might have been excluded from the commanders’ broader strategy of defending critical structures in the forest while ensuring the safety of firefighters. The battle against the fire was managed jointly by the county and the U.S. Forest Service.
The unusual disconnect between the camp and those leading the attack on the biggest fire in county history is evident in dispatch logs that reveal scant contact between the Mt. Gleason crews and the command center. Experts say that violates long-established firefighting protocols that require all agencies to work together on major blazes in the forest, maintaining good communications with each other and sharing information about fire behavior, weather conditions and escape routes.
The Station fire logs contain no calls to evacuate the camp or any effort to send help as the flames raced toward it. And daily government summaries of the firefight do not list the camp, a cluster of converted military buildings, among the many properties that commanders considered imperiled.
County Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp, the No. 2 executive in the department, said he did not believe that the camp had been an afterthought to the commanders. He also said that his agency had “some communications” with the crews during the firefight. A county review of the response to the Station blaze termed those communications “sporadic.”
Asked if it had been too risky for firefighters to stay at the camp, Tripp said, “That I can’t talk about yet.” He deferred to an inquiry into the deaths by the county and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, whose findings are due to be released in the coming days.
Don Feser, former fire chief of the Angeles National Forest, said it was senseless to have kept crews at the camp, especially because they were waiting for the blaze to reach them rather than actively confronting it.
“It wasn’t like there was any engagement going on,” he said. “It was an oversight, I’m guessing, in the county command system. . . . They either forgot about them, or the people who were calling shots for the county were oblivious about what could happen to them.”
Feser, who retired in 2007 after seven years as chief, said it was a mistake not to include the camp in the wider Station fire fight: “The incident command teams should have been double-checking to make sure that they didn’t have anybody out there, that everybody’s been evacuated.”
A preliminary county report and interviews show the crews had abandoned any hope of taking a stand against the fast-moving fire on that fateful Sunday morning, Aug. 30, and instead scrambled for cover in a dining hall and their vehicles.
“It got to the point where there was no oxygen to breathe,” said the firefighter who was at the camp.
At 4:15 p.m., “fire conditions around the camp began to deteriorate very rapidly,” the report states. At 5:15, it says, “an accounting of all personnel began, and it was determined that two personnel were missing.” At 5:41, this chilling entry appears in Forest Service dispatch logs: “Camp 16 has been burned over.”
As the flames roared up through the camp, exploding through the treetops, the crew members sought refuge in the dining hall, then were marshaled outside as the fire surrounded the building; they huddled in trucks and engines, and some unfolded hand-held shelters, according to witnesses and records. “We thought we were going to die,” said the firefighter who was on Mt. Gleason.
The Forest Service and county dispatch logs, the daily summaries, e-mails and volumes of other records were provided to The Times under federal and state disclosure laws.
The Times also obtained copies of the county’s early reports on the deaths, internal documents that reflect much of the desperation that witnesses have described in published accounts of the Mt. Gleason siege.
Official examinations of the Camp 16 incident have become sensitive, in part because of Times reports that have raised doubts about the Forest Service’s initial handling of the Station fire, when it was small and potentially containable. According to records and interviews, the agency scaled back its assault on the fire at the end of its first day and was slow to act the next morning, canceling or delaying deployments of water-dropping aircraft.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and other lawmakers have called for a congressional investigation.
As the Station fire blew out of control, the county remained in charge of Camp 16 and had issued the order to protect it, sending two engine companies to Mt. Gleason the day before it burned to bolster the crews based there, records and interviews show. The fire overran the camp on its fifth day, gutting the buildings that once housed a Nike anti-aircraft missile site.
The crews did not suspect that the blaze would hit as hard as it did, but the vaulting terrain limited their views of the flames, and the wind had begun shifting direction, said the firefighter who was there.
“We had a small slice of the pie that we could see,” he said. “We couldn’t see what was happening five miles this way, five miles that way. Ted Hall took off three or four times in his pickup truck just to keep an eye on the fire activity.”
The county reports and witnesses say that Hall, the camp superintendent, and Quinones, a crew foreman, had tried to slow the advance of the flames with a backfire. To do so, they jumped in a truck and took a dirt road to a spot just below the camp. They were about to return when their radio fell silent.
The firefighter who was at the scene said the last sounds he heard from Hall and Quinones was not their voices, but the echo of a flare pistol they used to ignite chaparral to rob the skyscraper-tall flames of fuel. Soon after, the conflagration enveloped the camp.
“It really hit from all four sides,” the firefighter said.
He recounted a frantic and treacherous search for Hall and Quinones, with several crew members suffering burns to their feet, eye injuries and smoke inhalation. They spotted the truck at the bottom of a canyon; it had plunged 800 feet off the road.
“The truck was upside down, with one body outside,” said the firefighter. “The truck was on fire. Everything was. It was like a tidal wave of fire.
“What happened to them? Who knows? Maybe they were backing up, maybe they got stuck. Maybe they thought there was no way to get out and so they just gunned the engine to go down the hill. It was pretty steep.”
The firefighter said he would always be haunted by the decision to defend Camp 16.
“Was it worth it? No,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone on my crew who would disagree with that.”