House panel presses for answers on Station fire

Jonathan Powers climbs back up Newman Point after cutting fire line in the area along Glendora Mountain Road, southeast of Highway 39.
Jonathan Powers climbs back up Newman Point after cutting fire line in the area along Glendora Mountain Road, southeast of Highway 39.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

Under intense questioning by House members, the former U.S. Forest Service commander who led the initial attack on last year’s Station fire conceded Tuesday that a “window of opportunity” to contain the flames was lost when aircraft arrived two hours late on the critical second morning of the blaze.

Members of the bipartisan congressional panel spent much of the four-hour-plus session in Pasadena grilling the now-retired commander and current Forest Service officials about the response to the fire, sometimes expressing frustration that they were not getting the full story.

“I have a feeling we’re not being told what happened,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said after posing numerous questions about why the Forest Service did not fill an order for air tankers that would have hit the fire at 7 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2009, when it was still small.

The fire, which broke out a day earlier, became the largest in Los Angeles County history, blackening 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest and destroying more than 200 homes, commercial buildings and other structures. Two county firefighters were killed trying to defend their Mt. Gleason camp.

Will Spyrison, the then-division chief who oversaw the operation on the second morning, said before a standing-room-only, often boisterous audience Tuesday that he made several calls for the air tankers between about 12:30 and 3:25 a.m. and was never told that they would not arrive until two hours after he needed them.

“I knew if I didn’t have the aircraft at 7 o’clock in the morning, there’s a very short window of time ... between 7 and 9 a.m. was that window of opportunity to make a difference,” said Spyrison, whose account had not been made public before.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who organized the panel, asked Spyrison if a 7 a.m. arrival of the tankers “could have made a critical difference in whether this fire got out of control.”

“Yes,” Spyrison said, “if it was possible to have them there at 7 o’clock in the morning.”

He then retreated a bit, saying, “You could play the what-if game” and “it’s hard to say” that the tankers would have helped knocked down the blaze before the sun heated the hillsides.

But he later said, “I went back and tried to confirm that aircraft because I knew the sense of urgency.... I needed it there by 7 to be able to, you know, make an effective attack.”

Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) asked, “Did you ever receive an answer back?”

“No,” Spyrison said. “I asked several times for confirmation.”

Spyrison also said he did not know that a separate Martin Mars tanker had been in the air the evening before and was available to dump more than 6,000 gallons of water and gel on the fire but was turned away and directed to unload at another location.

“It would have helped,” he said.

Two former Forest Service officials said that the agency let Spyrison down.

“There was a void in overall command and control,” said former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Don Feser.

“Spyrison did a remarkably good job [despite] severe constraints,” said William Derr, a retired investigator for the Forest Service’s California region.

The audience of more than 200, made up largely of people who lost their homes or saw them damaged in the fire, jeered or laughed derisively when Forest Service administrators said that, more than a year later, they still could not identify the person who decided not to process Spyrison’s order through a regional center that marshals aircraft from several agencies but instead opted to “leave it open” until later in the morning on Day 2.

Sherman pressed Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s head of fire and aviation, on who was responsible.

Harbour said, “We have not been able to validate the exact person that received that call. Nor have we been able to validate why the breakdown.”

His voice tinged with sarcasm, Sherman said, “What you have here is somebody, but we don’t know who it was, telephoned somebody, but we don’t know who it was, and the tankers weren’t sent. Nor was an effort made to find tankers in the area that could be sent.”

Harbour and other Forest Service officials repeatedly denied that cost concerns prevented them from turning immediately to state and local agencies for crews and equipment, including aircraft, to bolster the assault on the fire. The Times reported Monday that an internal review conducted for the U.S. Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, found that financial worries delayed the arrival of “critical resources” at the fire.

“I do not believe that’s the case at all,” said Angeles National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron, who is being transferred to the same job at the San Bernardino National Forest.

Schiff called for the House inquiry after The Times reported last year that Forest Service officials misjudged the threat presented by the fire, rolled back their attack at the end of the first day and failed to promptly fill the aircraft orders. Also on the panel, which convened at the U.S. Court of Appeals Building, were Reps. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park).

“There obviously were very serious problems,” Dreier said of the initial firefight. Chu asked whether the battle might have been hobbled by a lack of firefighting experience on the part of forest supervisors.

To loud applause, L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich suggested that the county Fire Department become the lead agency for fires in the Angeles National Forest.

Duncan Baird, a retired Pasadena Fire Department battalion chief, said he and other Big Tujunga Canyon residents lost their homes because, later in the fight, the Forest Service and county Fire Department decided not to defend the area as part of a strategy to avoid directly attacking the blaze in the backcountry. “It seems that our enclave of homes may have therefore been sacrificed,” he said.

Baird said he agreed with John Tripp, the county Fire Department’s chief deputy, that the fire eventually became too fierce to confront safely, but he said retardant dumps in the first days of the blaze could have slowed the flames.

Schiff said a record of Tuesday’s hearing will be sent to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which is conducting a probe of the fire. The Agriculture Department’s inspector general is investigating why the Forest Service withheld telephone dispatch recordings from a federal review team and the public.