Forest Service reforms are urged

A plane drops Phos-Chek fire retardant to help slow the flames.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called on the federal government Tuesday to authorize the U.S. Forest Service to deploy water-dropping helicopters at night and make greater use of local reinforcements to battle blazes like the deadly Station fire.

Acting at the request of the county Fire Department, the board voted 5 to 0 to send letters to Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommending the policy changes for all fires in the Angeles National Forest.

“We need to implement every possible measure to allow firefighters to do their work and put out fires,” said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who introduced the letters.

Unlike the county and Los Angeles city fire departments, the Forest Service does not fly water-dropping aircraft at night because of safety worries. County helicopters helped limit the Station fire to 15 acres during the first day, after it broke out in the lower Angeles National Forest above La Canada Flintridge. With the fire confined to federal land, the Forest Service later took control and the choppers were sent home.

After Forest Service commanders rolled back their response, the fire began to spread overnight, and a forceful air attack was not launched until several hours after first light on the critical second day, The Times reported.

The blaze eventually killed two county firefighters, burned 250 square miles of the forest, destroyed nearly 100 dwellings and cost about $90 million to fight.

A county Fire Department review suggested that a quicker and fiercer assault with helicopters might have kept the flames from raging out of control. The review also said the Forest Service should require that brush be cleared within 200 feet of structures instead of the current 30 feet. That proposal was included in the supervisors’ letters.

Three weeks before the Station fire, Forest Service managers were ordered to reduce reimbursement costs by minimizing their use of local and state aircraft and ground crews as reinforcements. The Forest Service brought in fewer county helicopters and firefighters on the second day of the blaze, but has denied that money influenced its decision.

The federal agency also has said that helicopters would not have helped during the early morning hours on Day 2 because the fire was burning in terrain too steep for ground crews to take advantage of water drops. Local officials and firefighters who were at the scene have challenged that finding.

The county Fire Department, meanwhile, has been criticized for denying the Forest Service’s request for two helicopters on the second day, sending one instead.