Rep. Schiff to seek inquiry into Station fire response

A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy stands near a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty in La Crescenta.
A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy stands near a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty in La Crescenta.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

A local House member says he will ask Congress to launch an inquiry next month into the U.S. Forest Service’s response to the Station fire, including a decision to withhold water-dropping aircraft during the critical second day of the blaze.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) made the announcement after The Times reported Monday that records contradict the Forest Service’s position that steep terrain prevented the agency from using helicopters and tanker planes to attack the fire in the hours before it began raging out of control.

“Congress really ought to investigate and determine if the right calls were made,” Schiff said. “I hope that we can have an oversight hearing and get to the bottom of this.”

Schiff said he would propose that a panel of the House Appropriations Committee conduct the inquiry, and that he would like to participate in the hearing. He said that with winter storms turning burned hillsides into rivers of mud, the damage inflicted by the fire continues to mount.

“The anxiety is not over for foothill communities,” he said. “For the next three to five years they’ll be sitting on pins and needles.”

Meanwhile, in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich also called for a congressional probe.

“What’s needed is a congressional investigation into the false reports by the Forest Service and its failure to stop the fire before it spread,” Antonovich said in a statement.

Two officers responsible for directing the firefight on the ground and from the sky made separate requests for aircraft during a 6 1/2 -hour period on Day 2, according to records and interviews. An order for three air tankers that morning was canceled and a helitanker did not reach the scene in the Angeles National Forest until an hour or so after its scheduled arrival, the records and interviews show.

A review by the Forest Service concluded last month that aircraft would have been ineffective because the fire was burning in a canyon too treacherous for ground crews to take advantage of water dumps. That finding has been disputed by officers who took part in the battle, as well as the former fire chief for the Angeles National Forest, Don Feser, who retired in 2007.

The blaze killed two county firefighters, destroyed about 90 dwellings and blackened 250 square miles. It was the largest fire in county history.

In an interview, Antonovich said the Forest Service review should have addressed the officers’ efforts to launch an air assault. “Did the members of the investigative committee have access to this information? If they did, they are responsible for misleading the public,” he said. “As a result of the [Forest Service] leadership’s failure . . . we lost two fine, brave firefighters.”

Messages left with a Forest Service spokesman late Monday were not returned.

The Times report on the canceled and delayed air attacks was based largely on Forest Service dispatch logs and deployment records obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act. Citing documents and interviews, The Times had reported earlier that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the flames after the first day, and that the agency might have missed an opportunity to knock the fire down early the following morning.

Three weeks before the blaze, the Forest Service instructed supervisors to cut costs by limiting the use of reinforcements from other fire agencies. Los Angeles County helicopters helped keep the Station fire to 15 acres the first day, but the Forest Service did not bring them back in the same numbers on Day 2. Forest Service officials said costs did not influence their tactics.

Schiff said the inquiry by the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies would also determine if the Forest Service has enough aircraft for its mission and whether it has “the right policies in place.”

The county Board of Supervisors has urged Congress to authorize the Forest Service to deploy firefighting helicopters at night, which the federal agency generally prohibits because of safety concerns. County choppers routinely fight fires after dark.