Station fire report faults Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service did not use all of the water-dropping aircraft at its disposal as the 2009 Station fire spread quickly across the Angeles National Forest the first night of the blaze, but it’s unclear whether doing so would have made a difference, according to a draft federal audit released on Friday.

The report by the Government Accountability Office — requested a year ago by members of Congress, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) — cited a lack of clarity in firefighting procedures that contributed to what many critics have said was an insufficient response in the early stages of the massive blaze.

Schiff has been especially critical of the Forest Service, calling its ongoing internal review of nighttime flight policies unacceptably slow and a “terrible indictment” of the agency.

Reached by cell phone while traveling in Montana on Friday, Tom Harbor, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said his agency was taking a deliberate and thorough approach to re-evaluating a nighttime flight ban that many critics argued allowed the fire to rage out of control.

Included in that process, he said, was making sure lifting the ban, put in place partly because of the risks to air crews, would be “the right kind of investment” for taxpayers, noting that the Forest Service now has agreements in place with counties across the Southland to use 17 aircraft.

Harbor said there was no timeframe for reaching a decision on Forest Service policy.

Critics have long said that the lack of water-dropping attacks from the air in the early stages allowed the fire to spread beyond containment, eventually burning through roughly 250 square miles, destroying hundreds of homes and killing two firefighters.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended that the Forest Service “clarify ambiguous operational processes, and address broader issues regarding its use of assets to fight fires” in order to avoid a similar situation.

The Forest Service has argued that federal air tankers and pilots weren’t available in the initial days of the fire, but the GAO noted that the agency could have used state-owned water-droppers.

In its report, the GAO also said that the Forest Service has “not yet clarified when its own firefighting assets should be ordered ahead of assets from other agencies,” adding that the agency should “clarify ambiguous operational processes.”

In a statement on Friday, Schiff said the GAO report sets the Forest Service on a path to improve firefighting response procedures — “steps that are long overdue,” he added.

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) also issued a statement Friday commending the report, saying it “confirms many of the concerns I have heard from the firefighting community, including the importance of giving our emergency responders the tools they need to safely and effectively fight fires.”

The 80-page report called on the Forest Service to set a clear timetable for addressing the recommendations listed in the draft report.

“We generally agree with the observations and recommendations of the report,” Harbor said. “We think it’s time, always, for us to ask ourselves how to get better and how to do better.”

GAO REPORT: Station fire response

-- Jason Wells, Times Community News

Twitter: @JasonBretWells

Photo: A Los Angeles City firefighter keeps watch over a back firing operation in Goss Canyon above La Crescenta Monday, Aug. 31, 2009. Credit: Times Community News

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