Two years to the day after an arsonist started what would become the 10th largest wildfire in modern California history, life has returned to normal in La Cañada Flintridge, but scars of the disaster remain.
While the Station fire's perpetrator remains at large, the community has moved from rebuilding homes to rebuilding real estate values. But even then, loose ends remain.
Local fire officials say a more unified command and communications system is in place to better coordinate firefighting efforts. But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) contends not enough progress has been made on policies for night time flights for water-dropping aircraft — a key technique that he said could have prevented the Station fire from turning into a large-scale disaster.
The Station fire, which started on Aug. 26, 2009, consumed 160,557 acres, destroyed 209 structures and claimed the lives of two firefighters. As a result of the deaths, when evidence of arson was discovered, the case was assigned to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department Homicide Division. Two years later, detectives are no closer to arresting a suspect.
Sheriff's Det. Mike Valento, who has worked the case for the last two years, said that while the 146 leads the department already has cleared have yet to turn up a suspect, it's far from a hopeless case.
“It's by no means considered a cold case, nothing like that. It's too early, even though it's been two years,” Valento said.
The investigation, he added, will remain active “until all the leads stop coming in over a good period of time — and that's just not the case yet.”
With a $150,000 reward going unclaimed, it was likely the crime had been committed by an individual working alone, Valento said.
“In all the other cases I've worked, a lot of the times the individual's committed the crime with at least a second person and eventually that [second] person talks,” he said. “Nothing's been leaked out, nothing good, despite that award.”
La Cañada Flintridge Mayor David Spence said this week that the Station fire was a reminder to the community of the dangers posed by the environment.
“If you live in the hills and you understand that we can get a fire any day, a day like today, which is 90 degrees, and some gardener has a spark in his weed whacker or whatever, something can come up real quickly,” said Spence. “I think that the people that live in this area are very cognizant of the issues and the problems that can occur.”
Still, Spence said that the large concrete barriers, known as K-rails, that populate the northern part of La Cañada remain an ugly reminder of the Station fire's devastation. They were put in place to prevent mudslide damage during heavy rainfall on the denuded mountains behind the city.
“It reminds everybody that there was a pretty serious disaster; and that in turn is transferred into a bad situation for real estate,” Spence said. “The market and the value of the homes has been falsely suppressed because of the Station fire situation.”
Ready for the next one
But two years later, the question remains: are local public agencies prepared to handle another Station fire?
Spence praised the work done by the L.A. County Fire Department to fight the fire, but said miscommunication and an ineffective early response by the Forest Service were problems that needed to be remedied.
Schiff has led a charge for answers from the Forest Service as to whether acquiring the ability to fly at night could prevent a similar disaster from happening again.
“It's certainly possible that if they had a night-flight capability, that the fire could have been put down in the first day or two,” Schiff said, adding that the U.S. Forest Service wasn't moving fast enough to address his concerns.
“Appallingly, two years after the Station fire, they still have not issued their report as to whether they need to once again do night flights,” Schiff said. “We could have another brutal fire season and the Forest Service would be utterly unprepared.”
L.A. County Assistant Fire Chief Bill Niccum said that by instituting a new unified command policy last spring, the fire department had helped alleviate this issue.
“No matter where we are in the forest, if [a fire] threatens L.A. County, then we go into what we call unified command,” said Niccum. “If we're in unified command and there's a threat to our community, we can fly at night.”
Niccum said that the fire department has also worked to improve its coordination with the Forest Service.
“We really did a shakedown of our incident command system so everybody knows everybody's role and responsibilities and communications,” said Niccum. “Our ability to co-manage large, complex, challenging wildland incidents has proven a model for agencies across the nation.”
In the meantime,
Spence said local residents are more prepared than ever for the next major incident.
“I've seen these disasters come and go,” he said. “And I would say that we are probably more ready now that we've ever been for a fire disaster.”