Cost concerns weakened Forest Service’s assault on Station fire, study says

Nolan Hixon shoots water at the flames from Angeles Crest Highway.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

A desire to control costs slowed the arrival of “critical resources” in the attack on last year’s disastrous Station fire as the U.S. Forest Service delayed ordering reinforcements from other agencies that had crews and equipment at the ready, according to an internal federal review.

The finding contradicts statements made for more than a year by Forest Service officials, who have insisted repeatedly that cost concerns never impeded the Station battle. It is likely to sharpen questions about the firefighting decisionmaking as a local congressional panel prepares to examine the Forest Service’s actions.

The review by the Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, echoes a Times report last fall that a Forest Service directive to reduce spending might have dissuaded fire managers from using more state and local strike teams and aircraft on the fateful second day of the blaze.

The new study also determined that the Forest Service, in opting to concentrate on protecting hillside neighborhoods and the communications towers and observatory on Mt. Wilson, did not stage a sustained direct assault on the back-country front of the fire as it spread into Angeles National Forest.

The fire would become the largest in Los Angeles County history, blackening 250 square miles and destroying more than 200 homes, commercial buildings and other structures. Two county firefighters were killed when the blaze roared nearly unchecked into the forest and overran their mountaintop camp.

Former Forest Service officials say the Agriculture Department inquiry is a “smoking gun” that shows the tactics employed early in the fire were badly flawed. Regardless of cost, they say, the Forest Service should have mounted a swift and unrelenting effort to stop the blaze on all fronts.

The review states that because the Forest Service had instructed managers to hold down costs, “the decision on the Station fire to initially order only federal personnel delayed arrival of critical resources.”

Tom Harbour, head of fire and aviation for the Forest Service, said he did “not know the specifics” of the findings but suggested that the conclusion about cost worries could be “an error.” He said that all orders for crews, equipment and aircraft were filled during the first two days of the fire, which broke out Aug. 26, 2009, and burned for six weeks.

Harbour added that, given the terrain, the decision to take an indirect approach to the flames in the backcountry was sound. “That’s some really, really rugged country,” he said.

But Don Feser, former fire chief for Angeles National Forest, said the inquiry indicates that the officials who led the attack “allowed the fire to run. No action was taken in terms of aggressive perimeter control.”

The findings in the “Large Cost Fire Review,” a copy of which The Times has obtained, will be addressed by Los Angeles-area House members during a public panel Tuesday morning in Pasadena.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who organized the session, said in a statement that the review “raises serious questions about whether a Forest Service policy intended to limit costs prevented the timely use of resources.... This will certainly be one of the important issues I intend to raise.”

The panel plans to interview former and current Forest Service officials and L.A. County Fire Department administrators, among others.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting a broader probe of the fire. And the Agriculture Department’s inspector general is investigating why the Forest Service withheld telephone dispatch recordings from another federal review and from the public.

The Times reported a year ago that, three weeks before the Station fire, the Forest Service’s California regional office issued a memorandum directing managers to limit reimbursement costs by restricting the use of crews, engines and aircraft from state and local agencies “as appropriate,” and to replace nonfederal forces “as quickly as possible.” Forest Service officials have said the memo did not affect their response to the fire.

But the Agriculture Department review cites a similar “guidance letter” from the regional office in finding that costs kept the Forest Service from turning immediately to state and local fire departments for help.

It offered the example of a strike team of engines from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that was sent back to San Diego after working on a separate blaze near the Station fire.

At that time, the Forest Service was still trying to fill an order for a federal strike team for the Station blaze, the review says.

The document does not say whether the money anxieties caused aircraft to be delayed. The Times has reported that the Forest Service failed to fill its own commander’s order for air tankers and helicopters to begin hitting the flames at 7 a.m. on the second day, when the blaze was still small. The three heavy tankers did not reach the fire until about two hours later, after it had jumped the key defense line of Angeles Crest Highway and started raging out of control.

Forest Service officials have said they did everything they could to get aircraft to the scene as soon as possible. But CalFire has said it had tankers available that were not ordered. The Forest Service also did not deploy a 7,200-gallon Martin Mars “water bomber” to the fire on the second day, even though the plane was under federal lease.

The Agriculture Department study, which was prepared by an outside contractor for eventual submission to Congress, analyzed the costs incurred in six fires last year, the Station conflagration being by far the biggest. Completed in August, the review is mostly favorable about the Forest Service’s overall performance on the Station fire, in part because it relied on a study the agency conducted on itself last November.

But the new review did not explore in detail the tardy arrival of aircraft on Day 2 or Times reports that the Forest Service underestimated the threat posed by the blaze and scaled back its attack, including on the ground, at the end of the first day. It declared those matters to be beyond its scope and deferred to the Government Accountability Office investigation.

The study says that the Forest Service, in order to protect homes in areas such as La Canada Flintridge as well as the installations on Mt. Wilson, “pursued a major objective of allowing the fire to move up into the forest and wilderness areas ... primarily employing an indirect strategy.” It says this approach helped save more than $1 billion worth of property.

Former Forest Service officials agree that the neighborhoods and Mt. Wilson were priorities but say the agency could have defended them while simultaneously confronting the fire in the forest interior -- before the blaze became too big to safely tackle.

“They could have accomplished both objectives,” said William Derr, a former Forest Service investigator for California. “They used half-measures and they only got half-results.”

Troy Kurth, the agency’s former fire prevention officer for California, said crews could have taken a stand higher on Angeles Crest Highway to keep the blaze from exploding into the backcountry.

Instead, “they let it burn one of the most valuable watersheds in the world,” he said.

Harbour, of the Forest Service, dismissed that as second-guessing. “We’ve got the best, the highest-qualified command folks looking at the fire [and] prioritizing actions and assets,” he said.

Meanwhile, the review said Station fire commanders sometimes faced political and public pressures to order DC-10s and 747s to drop retardant, even if they didn’t believe the jumbo jets would be effective. But the study also found that DC-10s, while expensive to deploy and less nimble than smaller planes and helicopters, saved up to $8 million in potential costs.