Forest Service launches inquiry into fire response

Assistant fire chief Hall said this morning that the blaze was 10% contained.
Assistant fire chief Hall said this morning that the blaze was 10% contained.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Forest Service has launched an internal inquiry into the agency’s attack on the deadly Station fire, an operation that was scaled back the night before the blaze began to burn out of control.

“With the significant loss of life, and impacts to the local community, we must determine the effectiveness of our efforts,” Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said in a written statement Wednesday. Tidwell said he would ask other agencies to participate in the review.

But the Forest Service has declined to release detailed information about its response to the suspected arson fire, citing in part an ongoing homicide investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department into the deaths of two firefighters whose truck fell off a mountain road. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department sent a letter Wednesday to fire officials asking that the material be withheld until detectives review it.

Neither Forest Service officials nor Whitmore would explain how the release of information on the deployment of firefighters and equipment might jeopardize the investigation. The firefighters were killed on the blaze’s fifth day.

The Times reported this week that the Forest Service considered the fire nearly contained at the end of the first day, and thus prepared to go into mop-up mode the next morning with fewer ground crews and water-dropping helicopters, according to documents and interviews. After the story appeared, fire victims demanded an investigation.

The blaze, which broke out Aug. 26, destroyed about 90 homes and other buildings and blackened more than 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest. It is the largest fire in the county’s recorded history.

Big Tujunga Canyon residents, many of whom lost homes to the fire, said they welcomed the Forest Service inquiry, but were skeptical that it would be as rigorous as an independent probe.

“Will we get the truth? I don’t know,” said Cindy Marie Pain, whose Stonyvale Road house burned down. She said she believed the Forest Service was withholding information on its tactics because “they look bad enough already.”

Residents have accused the Los Angeles County Fire Department of not doing enough to keep the flames from the canyon community after the blaze spread from its starting point above La Canada Flintridge. County officials have said the department did all it could without risking the lives of firefighters.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Glendale), whose district borders the Angeles National Forest, said the Forest Service failed to address concerns that he and five other local members of Congress raised more than two years ago about the agency’s firefighting capabilities.

In an August 2007 letter, the lawmakers cited reports of a “severe shortage of qualified supervisors” in the forest and complaints that many firefighters had quit because of low pay and management that “has not been responsive.”

“We’ll look at what the Forest Service investigation reveals and we’ll see if a broader investigation needs to be done,” Schiff said Wednesday. “It seems to me that this is a situation where you would want maximum transparency.”

The Times reported that in the evening of the fire’s first day, the Forest Service estimated that the blaze would be controlled by the following afternoon, with no loss of structures and minimal harm to the natural treasures of the San Gabriel Mountains. Overnight, as the 15-acre fire grew, the Forest Service realized its mistake and began to summon more equipment and crews.

On that fateful second day, the county department lent the Forest Service a heli-tanker but denied its request for another smaller chopper, according to documents and interviews.

Chief Deputy John Tripp, the department’s No. 2 official, said he made that decision because he did not believe the fire was endangering neighborhoods, and because the county must keep some helicopters for other emergencies.