Probe sought on U.S. response to the Station fire

Los Angeles Times

Big Tujunga Canyon residents and others reeling from the Station fire called Monday for a federal investigation into what they termed a poor initial response to the deadly blaze by the U.S. Forest Service .

“It was beyond irresponsibility, beyond neglect,” said Cindy Marie Pain, who lost her Big Tujunga Canyon home to the fire, which broke out in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26.

Pain and other residents said they were outraged by a Times article Sunday that reported the Forest Service had underestimated the danger posed by the fire and scaled back an attack on the flames the night before the blaze began to rage out of control.

“When it’s small, that’s when you jump on it,” said Bronwen Aker, a Vogel Flats resident who set up a for fire victims.

Her home was spared, but those of many of her neighbors were destroyed.

“A lot of residents are incredibly embittered about the way it was handled,” Aker said.

Bob Kerstein, who lost a cabin and a house on gold-mining property that his family owns in the forest, said Congress should investigate the Forest Service’s tactics.

“It’s crazy what happened here,” he said. “There are a lot of heroes in this -- the firefighters who were on the line. But the people who should be held accountable are the people who made the decision not to put the fire out in the 48 hours after it started.”

Leo Grillo, an actor who runs an animal sanctuary that was threatened by the blaze, said any investigation should also examine the lack of a more aggressive air assault later in the fire, especially when it appeared to have flagged on Day Five.

“They had the golden opportunity to put it out and they didn’t,” he said.

The Times reported that the Forest Service had been confident that the fire was nearly contained on the first day, and the agency decided that evening to order just three water-dropping helicopters to hit the blaze shortly after dawn on its second day -- down from five on Day One, documents and interviews show.

The Forest Service also prepared to go into mop-up mode with fewer firefighters on the ground, according to records and officials.

Early in the morning on the second day, the Forest Service realized that three helicopters would not be enough and summoned two more later in the morning, Angeles Forest Fire Chief David Conklin said. More engine companies and ground crews were also deployed, but it would prove too late.

On Day Two, the Los Angeles County Fire Department lent the Forest Service a heli-tanker but denied a request for another smaller chopper -- an action that residents say should be reviewed. Chief Deputy John Tripp, the No. 2 official in the county department, said he withheld the second aircraft because he did not believe the fire was endangering neighborhoods near its suspected ignition point above La Canada Flintridge, and because the county must hold on to some helicopters for other emergencies.

The Station fire would become the largest in the county’s recorded history, blackening more than 160,000 acres of the forest, destroying dozens of dwellings and killing two county firefighters who died when their truck fell off a mountain road.

Conklin and Tripp told The Times they probably will change their procedures so that the two agencies immediately stage a joint assault on any fire in the lower Angeles.

Several foothill residents have expressed suspicions that the Forest Service let the fire burn early on as a way to clear dry brush, and that the decision not to bring in more aircraft and firefighters for the second morning was based on cost concerns.

Forest Service officials have said both notions are false.

On Monday night, residents packed a Tujunga meeting hall to ask fire officials if more could have been done to save homes. The gathering became contentious at times.

Tripp said the county did the best it could without putting firefighters’ lives in jeopardy.

“If anybody thinks we take this lightly, we don’t,” he said in an emotional voice.

But Rob Driscoll, whose Vogel Flats home burned, was not satisfied.

“We’re angry and we need better answers than we’ve gotten tonight,” Driscoll said.