Political Landscape: Rep. wants flights OKd

Glendale News Press

Rep. Adam Schiff on Wednesday called for the U.S. Forest Service to consider repealing nighttime flight restrictions, arguing they are needed in the critical infancy of a forest fire.

Local officials have criticized the prohibition on nighttime water-dropping missions for allowing the Station fire last year to grow out of control in the initial days, eventually destroying scores of structures and killing two Los Angeles County firefighters.

Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, Schiff (D-Burbank) urged the agency to renew its use of water-dropping aircraft at night, contending that advances in technology have made it safer for helicopter crews to navigate dark skies.

The Station fire tore through 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest and surrounding areas and destroyed about 90 structures. It cost nearly $100 million to contain — a significant chunk of the Forest Service annual firefighting budget.

The Forest Service, using night-vision goggles, operated night-flying, firefighting helicopters over the Angeles National Forest during the 1970s, but ended the practice for crews and contractors after a 1977 collision killed a pilot.

The agency and its contractors no longer have the training or equipment to fly at night, Schiff said.

"However, the technology to enable night flying has developed dramatically in the three decades since," Schiff said in testimony to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

Los Angeles city and county fire departments fly helicopters at night, and military contractors have built ultra-modern night-flying systems for use by troops overseas, with many of the technologies being developed for civilian use, Schiff said.

"Nighttime flights are not a silver bullet, but they can significantly improve our ability to effectively fight fires near urban areas," he said. "And by helping reduce the number of catastrophic fires, they may save lives and pay for themselves.

The lack of air drops frustrated foothill residents, who could do nothing but watch as the blaze raged, growing exponentially overnight.

"Anything that can be done to help fight fires better needs to be looked at and studied at this point," said La Cañada Flintridge Councilwoman Laura Olhasso, who was mayor at the time of the fire. "And if decided, changes should be made."

Schiff in March proposed that a House committee incorporate in its 2011 funding bill a provision directing the Forest Service to formally study on whether to acquire night-flying capability. Earlier this year he called for an inquiry into night-flying prohibitions, as well as the agency's response to the fire.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Wednesday that a federal review of night-flying operations would be completed by fall. And a panel of area lawmakers will convene in the coming months to hear from experts and local fire officials on the decisions made in the early hours of the Station fire, Schiff said.

A single, county-owned night-flying helicopter was dispatched to the fire, but soon after was diverted to perform medical evacuation, its primary responsibility.

Planes were ordered to conduct water drops by 7 a.m. the next morning, but did not arrive until about 9 a.m. because the equipment had been used in a separate fire the day before, and time was needed to prepare the crews and planes for the Station fire.

After sunrise, hard-to-reach hot spots flared up, threatening an access road for firefighters and forcing a retreat. A report from the Los Angeles County Fire Department concluded that "[n]o one, no fire chief, no firefighter, resident or reporter can provide definitive evidence that anything would have made a difference in the outcome."

But at the hearing, Tidwell said he would have deployed water-dropping helicopters at the crucial time in the fire had he had them.

"That pretty much tells you that the safety question has been answered," Schiff said in an interview. "If they had them they would have used them."

He added that the upcoming congressional panel would probe whether night drops could have helped control the fire in its early stages, something Tidwell said "would not have been enough."

Small business wins award State Sen. Carol Liu on Tuesday honored the founder of Waste Less Living with the "Salute to Small Business" award. Liu (D- La Cañada Flintridge) presented the award to Christine Lenches-Hinkel at a Small Business Day event where legislators recognized operators of small businesses from their areas.

"I am pleased to recognize a green business that helps protect the environment, promote recycling, and create jobs," Liu said in a statement.

Headquartered in Pasadena, Waste Less Living promotes sustainable habits, reducing reliance on petroleum-based disposables, renewable resource-based products, minimizing waste to landfills and educating consumers.

Liu this year received a "Summa Cum Laude" rating from the California Small Business Assn., the highest ranking for state legislators, based on her commitment to the industry.

— Christopher Cadelago

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