Lawmakers seek broad probe into Forest Service response to Station fire

Travis Riner, 25, tries to salvage whatever he can from the charred remains of the home where he had lived for eight years on the 3000 block of Stonyvale Road at Vogel Flat in Tujunga.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

California’s two U.S. senators and several local House members Thursday called on Congress’ investigative arm to launch a sweeping probe into the Forest Service’s response to last summer’s disastrous Station fire.

In asking for the investigation by the Government Accountability Office, which typically grants such requests, the lawmakers recommended a broad examination of the Forest Service’s decisions and tactics. Those include the use of aircraft early in the fight and the question of whether everything possible was done to protect homes that burned in Big Tujunga Canyon.

The legislators also cited the disclosure this week that telephone dispatch recordings made during the fire were withheld from a Forest Service review team and the public. The Times requested the recordings last year and again this year, but Forest Service officials said they did not exist.

The late discovery of the recordings “casts a dark cloud over the findings of the review panel and immediately warrants an independent review of the Station fire response,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the GAO. “Our purpose for this review is to ensure that all actions in the response to the fire were taken swiftly, properly and competently.”

In addition to Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the signers include Reps. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Judy Chu (D-El Monte) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

The development comes two days after the Department of Agriculture, which runs the Forest Service, announced that its inspector general had opened a separate investigation into the withheld recordings, which were made at an Angeles National Forest dispatch center. That probe could lead to criminal charges, depending on the findings.

Dreier, whose district includes much of the forest, said he initiated the letter to the GAO “to redouble our efforts to get to the bottom of this.”

“The notion of not taking every action to find out exactly what happened ... is something that is just plain wrong,” he said.

The Times has reported that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the fire, rolled back its attack on the first night and failed to fill an order for air tankers in the hours after sunup the following morning, when the blaze was still small. The lawmakers asked the GAO to examine all of those actions.

The fire blackened 250 square miles, destroyed scores of homes and other structures, and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters. It was the biggest fire in county history.

On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell had invited Congress to ask for the GAO investigation.

“We welcome the opportunity to have the GAO review the actions of the Forest Service,” Tidwell said in a statement Thursday.

In November, the Forest Service review team found that the agency followed all proper protocols and procedures in its response to the fire, a conclusion labeled a whitewash by former Forest Service officers and some local elected officials.

A subsequent Los Angeles County Fire Department inquiry was far more self-critical about the events that led to the deaths of Tedmund Hall and Arnaldo Quinones, who were killed while trying to defend their Mt. Gleason camp.

In the letter to the GAO, the lawmakers say, “We must establish what lessons were learned from this devastating fire. By identifying mistakes made and where different choices would have caused better outcomes, agencies tasked with preventing and fighting fires will be able to better prepare and respond in the future.”

Meanwhile, the inspector general also will examine whether the Forest Service had the legal authority to record phone calls to the Angeles dispatch center without the consent of all callers.

Radio dispatch communications are routinely recorded, but the Forest Service wants the inspector general to determine whether the phone recordings violated privacy rights, agency officials said.

In an internal memorandum Wednesday that was obtained by The Times, Forest Service Deputy Chief James Hubbard ordered all dispatch centers to stop recording calls until the matter is resolved.