Schiff wants Forest Service to consider lifting ban on night firefighting flights

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Citing questions raised by the devastating Station blaze, a local House member has asked that Congress require the U.S. Forest Service to consider lifting a decades-old ban on the use of aircraft to fight fires after dark.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank) proposed Wednesday that a panel of the House Appropriations Committee include in its 2011 funding bill a provision that the Forest Service conduct a formal study on whether to authorize night flying, something routinely done by the Los Angeles city and county fire departments.

Schiff noted that the Forest Service stopped night flying on safety grounds, after a deadly collision in the 1970s.

“As aviation technology improves, we need to ensure that the Forest Service’s policies keep pace, so that we can guarantee Southern Californians the safest, most effective response whenever a fire breaks out,” he said in a statement.

Last summer’s Station fire began raging out of control after the Forest Service scaled back its attack on the flames the first night and failed to deploy water-dropping helicopters and air tankers in force until several hours after dawn the following morning, The Times has reported.

The fire became the largest in Los Angeles County history, burning 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, destroying scores of dwellings and killing two county firefighters.

Forest Service officials have said their commanders did everything they could to contain the blaze but were hampered by rugged terrain, an account disputed by some firefighters who were at the scene as well as by the retired fire chief for the Angeles National Forest.

In addition, records obtained by The Times showed that commanders ordered a heavy assault from the sky for 7 a.m. on Day 2, but that most of the aircraft were canceled.

On Wednesday, the Forest Service said in a statement that it would not comment on Schiff’s proposal but had started its own review “to ensure that our policies properly balance the benefits and risks of night flying.”

At the behest of the county Fire Department, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors also has urged Congress to push for a reversal of the Forest Service’s policy on night missions.

Schiff called for the House-mandated study to be completed within 90 days of the funding bill’s enactment. In December, he asked that the appropriations panel launch an investigation into the Forest Service’s response to the Station fire. Action on that request has been delayed because of a change in committee chairmen, he said.

He added that he has since “learned a lot” in meetings with Forest Service and county officials but that a House inquiry would bring in witnesses from outside the two agencies, including former fire administrators and residents who lost their homes to the blaze.

A spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he welcomed Schiff’s night-flying examination but was disappointed that the House has moved at a “slow pace” on the congressman’s request for investigative hearings.

Cindy Pain, whose home burned in the fire, said the probe “needs to be pushed forward. We want to see everything come out in the open.”