Foothill residents, representative criticize Forest Service over Station fire

A scared Alexis Faieta cries in the back seat of the family vehicle as her parents, April and John Faieta, prepare to evacuate from Haines Canyon Avenue in Tujunga on Monday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

Foothill residents and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) criticized the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday for moving too slowly to commission a new fleet of night-flying aircraft to fight fires like the devastating Station blaze.

At a packed meeting in the Altadena Library, residents who lost their homes in the 2009 conflagration also pleaded with federal investigators to determine how and why the Forest Service let the fire become the biggest in Los Angeles County history.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office representative said it had assigned two full-time investigators to its Station fire inquiry, which began several months ago and is expected to continue until the end of the year.

Schiff, who convened Thursday’s meeting with Forest Service and GAO officials, expressed frustration with delays in a federal study of the night-flying proposal, as well as efforts to increase the number of flight crews so the government would not have to ground aircraft to allow pilots to rest.

“It has taken an unacceptably long time,” Schiff said. “We’re going to continue riding the Forest Service until this is done.”

The Station fire was nearly extinguished on the first day but gathered strength overnight. Air tankers ordered for 7 o’clock the next morning did not arrive until about two hours later, after the flames had begun to rage out of control. The blaze burned 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, destroyed more than 200 homes and other structures, and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters.

Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s head of fire and aviation, said the agency has yet to decide whether to acquire its own night-flying aircraft. He said the study, complicated by the potential financial costs and safety concerns associated with night missions, should be completed in about two months.

“But I got the message,” Harbour said. “They want us to move faster.”

The Forest Service stopped doing night flights in the 1970s and more recently has relied on the county Fire Department for helicopters after dark. The two agencies have not always agreed on when and where the choppers should be used, with county officials often questioning whether the Forest Service is aggressive enough.

Harbour said Angeles Forest commanders and dispatchers have undergone recent training to help them summon county helicopters more promptly, day and night. “Lessons learned,” he said.

Schiff, however, said that the Forest Service cannot depend only on the county. He cited reports that during the early hours of the Station fire, a county helicopter had to be diverted from the flames for an emergency medical call.

The congressman said he was hopeful the Forest Service would eventually pursue funding for night-flying aircraft, although “it’s been excruciatingly frustrating how slow the process of change is.”

That sentiment was echoed by many in the audience. “Nothing’s changed!” one man snapped at Harbour.

“We hear the same answers over and over,” said Sandra Thomas, an Altadena resident who sits on the community’s town council.

Stephen Gaty, an assistant director for the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, told the gathering that the Station fire probe is looking at “all phases” of the Forest Service’s response, but he declined to disclose its findings so far.

The GAO inquiry grew out of a series of Times reports on the Forest Service’s actions during the first days of the blaze.

Bert Voorhees, whose Vogel Flats home burned, said the GAO should examine why the Forest Service did not do more to protect canyon residences, such as treating brush with retardant before the flames drew too close.

He accused the Forest Service of covering up its mistakes.

“Hold people accountable,” Voorhees said.

A separate investigation by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general is focused on why the Forest Service withheld Station fire dispatch recordings from a federal review team and the public.

A spokesman for the inspector general declined Thursday to comment on the status of the investigation.