U.S. failed to press early air battle in Station fire

Robert Steffensen, 49, has lived in his La Crescenta house since 1975. He stands on his roof with a garden hose, trying to protect his home from falling ash. The Forest Service set a backfire to help protect the homes on this ridge from the sprawling Station fire.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Forest Service failed to fill an order for air tankers that its own commanders urgently requested for an assault on the disastrous Station fire before it began raging out of control, according to records and state officials -- a finding that rebuts months of assertions by the federal agency that it took every step to deploy the planes as quickly as possible.

The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said it could have made as many as four tankers available to the Forest Service on the fateful second morning of the blaze. Two could have reached the fire by 7 a.m. and a third shortly after 7:30 a.m., but the Forest Service did not order them, said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the state agency, known as CalFire.

“We never received an order for the aircraft,” she said.

An early assault by the heavy tankers could have helped ground crews contain the blaze that morning, when it was still small, firefighters at the scene have said.

The fire jumped a key defense line about 8 a.m. and spread rapidly. It eventually killed two firefighters, destroyed scores of structures and became the largest fire in Los Angeles County history.

In testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing and in other forums, officials including Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell have offered varying explanations for the late arrival of the tankers on Day 2. They have blamed steep terrain in the Angeles National Forest, the need for pilots to rest and a lack of available relief aircraft. Tankers did not start arriving until about 9 a.m., two hours after the time requested by commanders.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who played a prominent role in the Senate hearing, said in a statement that a House panel he plans to convene in Los Angeles would examine the “conflicting claims about the decision-making during the early hours of the Station fire.” One issue raised by critics of the Forest Service is whether the agency moved slowly on ordering tanker missions because of budget considerations -- something that officials have denied.

Forest Service deployment records and interviews with officials show that the “special needs” tanker request made shortly before 1 a.m. on Aug. 27 was never processed through the regional operations center that is jointly run by the state and federal governments to assign firefighting aircraft. In addition to the four tankers, CalFire had three helicopters and several tactical surveillance planes available, according to duty records and aircraft logs for the agency.

Jody Noiron, the Forest Service’s supervisor for the Angeles National Forest, said a dispatcher recalls telephoning the operations center to ask about the availability of tankers and was told to hold the order, or “leave it open,” while inquiries were made. Noiron and other officials said they do not know who fielded the call or what action might have been taken subsequently to look for tankers that could get to the fire by 7 a.m. or soon afterward. They said they would search phone records for possible answers.

“We don’t have any record of a phone call,” said CalFire’s Upton.

Ralph Domanski, the Forest Service’s assistant director for fire and aviation at the operations center, said: “It would have been better to have processed the order.... I don’t know why [dispatchers] didn’t do that, and I don’t know why our people would tell them to hold it and not to process it.”

Jim Pena, deputy forester for the Forest Service’s California region, said that he believes the agency did its best to deploy the tankers quickly, at a time when other fires were burning, but that it would formally process all orders through the operations center in the future.

“When we have an order, we’re going to push that order, no matter what,” he said.

Former Forest Service officials and other experts termed the failure to fill the tanker order a monumental error. They said it was unfathomable that the agency could have overlooked such a critical misstep in its official review of the blaze, a probe that found no faults in the management of the fire fight.

“It’s an absolute cover-up,” said Don Feser, the Forest Service’s former fire chief for the Angeles.

He said Congress should investigate whether the order was deliberately not placed, perhaps as a cost-saving measure. Three weeks before the Station fire, the Forest Service issued a memorandum directing its supervisors to keep expenses down by limiting use of aircraft and ground crews from other agencies.

The Forest Service’s commanders at the Station fire also requested that a tactical surveillance plane be over the blaze at 7 a.m. to direct the water dumps from the tankers. The tactical plane arrived on schedule, only to find the sky empty.

Two officials with knowledge of the Day 2 attack, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to give interviews, say the tactical plane crew repeatedly requested tankers after it became clear that none had been dispatched. The crew initially had to make do with a single, much smaller helicopter that arrived shortly before 8 a.m..

Dispatch records show that commanders again asked for tankers about 7 a.m., six hours after the initial request. Three Forest Service tankers were subsequently deployed but did not reach the fire until after it began racing through the forest.

Most of the questions about how the fire became so destructive have focused on the absence of a fierce air attack in the hours after dawn on Day 2. The flames had been nearly contained the evening before, in part because of a sustained pounding by helicopters and planes.

After the aircraft returned to base at nightfall, the fire began to gather strength, although it remained just a few acres in size at 7 the following morning.

In response to Times inquiries about whether the threat posed by the fire had been misjudged, officials said in September that they had believed enough aircraft were deployed early on Day 2.

In the review conducted by the Forest Service, the agency concluded that aerial dumps during those hours would have been ineffective because the blaze was burning in a canyon too treacherous for ground crews to safely reach to finish extinguishing the flames.

After that finding was disputed by firefighters at the scene as well as the Forest Service’s own records, officials told The Times and the Senate panel that the tankers had not been sent sooner because of a shortage of rested pilots and relief aircraft.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the subcommittee that held the hearing last month, asked Tidwell, “Why did it take so long for aircraft to arrive?”

Tidwell responded that after the tanker request was made, “our dispatch center [went] out to find the nearest available” aircraft and determined that three planes that worked another fire the day before -- and whose pilots needed more time to meet mandatory rest requirements -- were the only ones that fit the bill.

Asked through an aide if he had misled the committee, Tidwell said in a statement: “I provided the committee an accurate account of the events surrounding the Station fire. All our records indicate that the incident commander’s orders were filled by the earliest available aircraft.” He did not reply to a request for details on those records.

Feinstein’s office declined to comment Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Noiron said the Forest Service commander who logged the overnight request for a 7 a.m. tanker attack realized that, because of the pilot and plane shortage, the aircraft would not arrive until 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. She would not make the commander, her subordinate, available for an interview.

The Times has reported that deployment documents showed the tanker request had been canceled. Noiron said the request was marked canceled by mistake because, due to “messy paperwork,” a dispatcher identified it as a duplicate of the order placed later in the morning.

By the time the planes were over the flames, the fire had scaled Angeles Crest Highway, a crucial battle line, and was exploding through tall trees and paper-dry brush.