Night flight delay sparks criticism

More than two years after the devastating Station fire, the U.S. Forest Service has yet to establish guidelines for firefighting night flights over rugged terrain in the Angeles National Forest — frustrating local officials who say the agency is dragging its feet ahead of the upcoming fire season.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich sent a letter last week to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) criticizing the Forest Service for the delay, calling the current ban on aerial fire attacks at night “ineffective.”

He went on to contend that the nighttime flight prohibition “prevented early containment [of the Station fire] as county fire pilots waited anxiously on the tarmac.”

The Station fire, which burned for nearly two months, blackened 160,000 acres, wiped out more than 200 structures and killed two firefighters.

The pressure comes as the Forest Service — which had planned to complete its nighttime flight study by the end of the year — said it needs more time to assess the risks associated with nighttime helicopter programs.

“We want to make sure we get it right the first time,” said Tom Harbour, director of national fire and aviation management for the agency.

But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), an outspoken critic of the handling of the Station fire, said in a statement that the Forest Service completed a study last year that proved the effectiveness of a night-flight program in the Los Angeles area.

“Inexplicably, more than a year later, the Forest Service has failed to act on the report and continues to delay implementation of a night-flying program,” Schiff said. “I hope the [Forest Service] will swiftly implement these policies before we have another catastrophic fire in the Angeles [National Forest] that could be mitigated with the right training and equipment.”

Harbour emphasized that the Forest Service has access to Los Angeles County helicopters for nighttime flights, although he acknowledged that the same service was in place at the time of the Station fire.

In July, the Los Angeles County Fire Department signed an agreement with the Forest Service to allow access to county helicopters at night to assist firefighters on the ground. Previously, the Forest Service had limitations on requesting resources, county Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp said.

The county staffs three pilots a day for night flights and five to six during the peak fire season, Tripp said.

The nine helicopters available for nighttime firefighting frequently are used to transport patients to Los Angeles trauma centers. If they are all in use, Tripp said, the Forest Service may have to wait.

“We only have so many resources available,” he said. “At any given moment, we could have multiple fires, which could exceed our capability.”

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