Fallout surrounding firefighting tactics used during the Station fire intensified this week as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) joined Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich in calling for a federal investigation.
“I think there have been sufficient questions raised about whether the early stages of the fire could have been handled differently that may have resulted in a much better outcome, and that a federal investigation is warranted,” Schiff said Tuesday.
Inquiries center around whether the U.S. Forest Service was sufficiently aggressive in its tactics during the first 48 hours of the fire — specifically, whether a targeted aerial attack might have subdued the blaze before it grew out of control.
The Station fire, which started along Angeles Crest Highway just north of La Cañada Flintridge on Aug. 26, eventually burned more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 100 structures and was blamed for the deaths of two county firefighters.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that Forest Service dispatch logs showed two requests made by officers on the ground for airtankers and helitankers to be employed in the early morning hours of the second day of the fire. But the airtankers were canceled and the helitankers delayed, according to the Times.
The Times also reported that records fail to support statements made by the U.S. Forest Service, as part of an internal review conducted last month, claiming that the steep grade of the San Gabriel Mountains would have rendered an aerial attack ineffective and a ground attack highly dangerous.
The 66-page document, which was signed by top officials from the Forest Service, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was released on Nov. 13.
Who canceled the airtankers, and why, remains unclear, officials said.
“Originally the Forest Service reasoned that mountainous terrain prevented aircraft water drops,” Antonovich said in statement. “However, their logbooks reveal that their own incident commanders repeatedly asked for air support. What’s needed is a congressional investigation into the false reports by the Forest Service and its failure to stop the fire before it spread.”
Property owners who lost their homes during the Station fire applauded the call for a federal probe.
John Benriter, who owns property in La Cañada Flintridge, but has lived primarily in the Vogel Flats area in Big Tujunga Canyon since 1980. He and his wife, Ann, lost their home, two trucks, one car, two BMW motorcycles and three cats to the Station fire.
“It is a gut-wrenching feeling,” Benriter said. “You don’t comprehend it until you get back there and you say, ‘I don’t have a toaster. I don’t have any socks.’”
He described the firefight as “totally mismanaged.”
The Forest Service failed to attack the blaze at its point of origin, Benriter said, and then did nothing to stop it as it ravaged Tujunga.
“How could the Forest Service be so stupid — when they have this massive command center with more communication gear than what the president travels with — how could they not know what is in Tujunga Canyon?” Benriter said.
Duncan Baird, also a Tujunga Canyon property owner, is a retired Pasadena Fire Department battalion chief. He described watching the fire burn slowly for two days toward his home. Air tanker attacks in Tujunga Canyon were not just delayed, they never came at all, Baird said.
“They had all day Thursday and all day Friday, and Saturday up until 11 a.m. to do some aerial support to reduce the intensity of the fire so engineer crews and hand crews could get in and defend the houses,” Baird said.
On Aug. 29, the heat became so intense he was forced to flee. He returned three hours later to find the community, made up of three dozen homes, destroyed.
“I believe that the incident command team that was in charge of the fire was either unaware that there were homes present in the canyon . . . or they made a choice to concentrate all of their resources on La Cañada and La Crescenta and to ignore the need for resources in Big Tujunga,” Baird said.
The internal investigation conducted by the Forest Service was a sham, he said, adding that he wholeheartedly supported Antonovich and Schiff’s efforts.
“[The Forest Service] should be ashamed of themselves, [the internal review] was so embarrassing,” Baird said.
Calling off the airtankers and helitankers on Aug. 27 was a big mistake, Trent Sanders said. Sanders fought many fires in the San Gabriel Mountains while working on hot shot crews, tankers and helitack squads for the U.S. Forest Service from 1960 to 1969. He built a house in Big Tujunga Canyon in 1978, and lived there until moving to La Cañada in 1994. The house was lost in the fire.
“They are saying it was too steep to fight; that is not exactly right,” Sanders said. “The fires we were on, half the time we were nearly hanging from ropes fighting those things.”
Firefighters did a fantastic job protecting homes in the foothills, state Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-Pasadena) said. The question is whether better coordination, quicker decision making and additional resources could have reduced the breadth of the fire, and saved lives.