Senate panel to hold hearing on Station fire response

U.S. Forest Service firefighters battle the Station fire along Angeles Crest Highway in La Cañada Flintridge.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

A U.S. Senate panel has scheduled a hearing next week on proposals to repeal a decades-old U.S. Forest Service policy that bars its firefighting aircraft from flying night missions, a prohibition that some say allowed last summer’s disastrous Station blaze to rage out of control.

Among those set to testify at the Wednesday session is U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who has called for a congressional investigation into the response to the Station fire and asked lawmakers to require the Forest Service to reconsider its ban on night helicopter flights, which was imposed in the 1970s after a crash.

The Los Angeles county and city fire departments routinely fly helicopters at night.

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

With the help of aerial water dumps, firefighters had nearly contained the Station blaze in the hours after it broke out in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26. But the aircraft were sent home at nightfall, and the fire later began to spread.

The Times has reported that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the flames and that a heavy air assault did not resume until several hours after sunup on the second day, after the blaze got away from ground crews.

The fire was the largest in Los Angeles County history, blackening 250 square miles and destroying scores of structures. On its fifth day, two county firefighters were killed as they tried to defend their camp on Mt. Gleason.

Angeles Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron said the agency is “looking forward to participating in the hearing” by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which is chaired by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

In addition to hearing from Schiff, the subcommittee is expected to take testimony from Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and the agency’s director of fire and aviation management, Tom Harbour.

This week, a group of former Forest Service officials demanded an independent probe of the response to the Station fire, with many saying that an internal inquiry that the agency completed in November overlooked key tactical errors. Schiff said he plans to convene a panel of Los Angeles-area House members to hold hearings here.