Anger, frustration still flaring over Station fire

Ann Benriter stepped gingerly around bits of charred debris and twisted metal that littered the site where her house once stood in the Vogel Flats community in Big Tujunga Canyon. Off to one side were the remnants of two motorcycles, the tires and seats burned away.

Her husband, John, hasn't been able to bring himself to remove them.

"I don't care what anyone says, they had no intention of saving us," Benriter said. "All they did was save the ranger station. Every one of these water tanks, every pool, was all full of water. They never did anything."

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One year ago, the Station fire started along Angeles Crest Highway, two miles north of La Cañada Flintridge. It grew into the biggest fire in the history of Los Angeles County, burning through 160,000 acres, destroying more than 80 homes and killing two firefighters before being contained on Oct. 16.

But while the San Gabriel Mountains are showing preliminary signs of recovery — baby greens can be seen on many of the previously ash-gray slopes — the furor surrounding how the firefight was managed by the U.S. Forest Service shows no sign of abating.

For some residents who lost their homes and face a long and complicated rebuilding process, there is a deep sense of betrayal. And among county, state and federal representatives, there is frustration and concern about a lack of transparency and reform.

"It has been a year and still no reform," said Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. "We are smack dab in the middle of fire season again, and still no reform."

Antonovich was one of the first in a chorus of voices, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), questioning the U.S. Forest Service's handling of the Station fire, particularly the use, or the failure to use, aerial water drops during the initial days of the blaze.

An internal investigation conducted by the U.S. Forest Service concluded that an aerial assault in the early-morning hours of Aug. 27, 2009, would have been useless because the terrain was so steep and rugged that hand crews would not have been able to access the area to finish the job.

But it later came to light that key dispatch recordings were withheld from the internal review team. And earlier this month, Schiff was joined by Antonovich, Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and others in requesting that the Government Accountability Office perform an independent investigation.

Meanwhile, natural or accidental ignition were long ago ruled out as possible causes of the Station fire, but no arrests have been made despite $150,000 in rewards.

"It has been a challenging road for [homicide detectives], but they are still trudging away, following all leads," said county Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore.

In the Cresenta-Cañada area, the impact of the Station fire has been twofold. Hundreds of families were evacuated as the blaze burned within feet of their homes. Months later, many of those same families fled again as winter rain destabilized barren hillsides, triggering damaging debris flows.

"There is just a resilient spirit of the folks who live in our area to fight on, but we also demand that those we entrust with our public safety improve where necessary," said state Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge). "The questions that have been raised need to be answered."

And within the ranks of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the foothill community at large, the deaths of Capt. Tedmund Hall and Spec. Arnold Quinones remain the most painful legacy.

Last week, the city of La Cañada Flintridge dedicated a plaque at Memorial Park in honor of Station fire emergency responders. The names of Hall and Quinones adorn the sides of many county fire vehicles, and at Station 19 in La Cañada, a memorial was built in their honor.

"Tedmund Hall, Arnie Quinones and their families will never be far from our thoughts," Dreier said.

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