Change comes slowly after Station fire

Residents who lost their homes in the massive Station fire reacted with frustration to what they called forest officials’ slow progress in improving wildfire-response capabilities.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) called the public meeting at the Altadena Library on Thursday to brief residents on steps that the U.S. Forest Service had taken to improve its firefighting resources amid an ongoing investigation into the agency’s initial failure to extinguish hot spots before flames spread to consume 160,000 acres, burning nearly 90 homes and killing two county firefighters.

Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s fire and aviation director, said officials have yet to determine firefighting policy changes in response to shortcomings during the Station fire, including whether to beef up the number of nighttime firefighting aircraft and flight crews at its disposal.

The agency has 18 aging planes and no crews at the ready to fly them at night.

For many of the nearly four dozen people crowded into the library for the briefing, that wasn’t good enough.

“What I’m hearing is that nothing’s changed. It’s been 20 months,” said Duncan Baird, who lost his Stoneyvale Road home during the fire and is a member of the Vogel Flats Fire Recovery Alliance, a group of affected homeowners.

Schiff, who last year conducted a hearing on Station fire response, was equally critical.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that if we had a fire break out tomorrow, things would be handled much differently than they were during the Station fire, and that concerns me a great deal,” he said after the panel.

Citing recent forest replanting efforts, Angeles National Forest Deputy Supervisor Marty Dumpis said officials could reopen up to 90,000 acres of land as early as the end of May.

With wildfire season fast approaching, Angeles National Forest supervisors have been directed to call on the L.A. County Fire Department for nighttime aerial firefighting, Harbour said.

La Cañada Flintridge City Councilwoman Laura Olhasso said the forest’s proximity to densely populated areas deserves special consideration by federal officials.

Rather than rely exclusively on federal crews to serve the area, “maybe we should invest in state or county agencies that could use those planes on a more localized basis,” Olhasso said.

Many in attendance urged the Government Accountability Office — which Stephen Gaty, an assistant director with the office, said will complete its investigation before year’s end — to focus on why firefighting resources were not deployed early in the Station fire to protect homes.

“We just sat there watching the fire get closer for two days,” said Bert Voorhees, an attorney who lost his Vogel Flats home in the fire.

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