Politicians grill U.S. Forest Service about Station fire

The hours that officials spent during a congressional hearing Tuesday questioning the tactical response to the massive Station fire did little to satiate long-simmering frustration among residents who lost their homes in the blaze.

Local congressional representatives Tuesday grilled U.S. Forest Service officials about their response to the Station fire, including an apparent communication breakdown that delayed aerial water drops at a critical juncture during the first 24 hours of the firefight.

Fire officials have maintained they did everything possible to contain the blaze, and on Tuesday pointed to another obstacle standing in the way of aerial tactics: steep terrain coupled with power lines. But residents at the hearing said the hours of testimony amounted to yet another example of officials trying to shirk responsibility.

“I think it is interesting that the Forest Service’s story has changed yet again,” said Bert Voorhees, whose Vogel Flats home was destroyed as the fire roared through Big Tujunga Canyon on Aug. 29, 2009. “Initially it was [that] there were no tankers available, and then there were no pilots available to fly them, and on and on and on. Now there is this new twist. Suddenly, the real problem area of the fire was so compromised with electric lines that the tankers wouldn’t have done any good.”

The five-member congressional panel, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), repeatedly asked how firefighters lost control of what started on Aug. 26, 2009, as a 15-acre brush fire, why an aerial attack was delayed in the morning hours of Aug. 27 and what, if any, efforts were made to protect communities in Big Tujunga Canyon.

They also questioned whether a Forest Service directive to minimize costs factored into discussions as fire personnel considered requesting additional resources, as was suggested by a recent review by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

“If true, this is a terribly disturbing result — that in an effort to cut costs, the Forest Service risked letting the fire loose with catastrophic consequences,” Schiff said.

Jody Noiron, forest supervisor for the Angeles National Forest at the time of the Station fire — she has since been reassigned to the San Bernardino National Forest — adamantly denied that financial concerns played a role in how the firefight was managed.

The U.S. Forest Service staged an aggressive response, she said, while working to ensure the safety of its firefighters.

“Would different decisions or actions have resulted in a different outcome?” Noiron said. “No one knows for sure; we can only speculate. But walking in the boots of our fire commanders at the time, given the information they had, and not knowing what the outcome would be, were responsible, safe, yet aggressive decisions made and actions taken? The facts we have indicate yes.”

Shortly after the fire broke out along Angeles Crest Highway, air tankers and helicopters were attacking the fire, but by early evening, fire officials agreed the blaze would be fully contained by the next day, and the air attack was suspended for the night.

Overnight, however, conditions changed. Several spot fires began burning. Incident commander Will Spyrison testified that he requested an aggressive air attack starting at 7 a.m. Aug. 27.

But air tanker drops did not resume until about 9 a.m., and as the day progressed, firefighters lost a decisive opportunity to extinguish it. The Station fire would go on to burn more than 160,000 acres, destroy 89 structures and claim the lives of two Los Angeles County firefighters before being contained on Oct. 16, 2009.

Steep terrain and power lines made it impossible for air tankers to safely make drops anywhere south of the highway, Noiron said, so starting air tanker water drops at 7 a.m. Aug. 27 might not have made a difference.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-San Fernando) pressed Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, about who was responsible for ignoring or delaying the request for early-morning aerial water drops.

“We have not been able to determine that,” Harbour responded.

The hearing on Tuesday drew more than 200 people to the U.S. Court of Appeals building in Pasadena.

Duncan Baird, a retired battalion fire chief with the city of Pasadena who also lost his Vogel Flats home in the fire, said numerous errors were made during the firefight. And documents generated by the incident command center during the first few days of the fire, he said, show that “the homes in Big Tujunga Canyon were completely ignored until just a couple of hours before the actual fire front arrived at our group of homes.”

The failure of the Forest Service to take responsibility for its mistakes has left Rob Driscoll — whose Vogel Flats home was also destroyed in the fire — with what he described as a deep distrust of government. He said he is still trying to come to terms with the loss of his home.

“You come out of the canyon and you are angry because you see the wonder of nature destroyed,” Driscoll said. “You keep saying, ‘Why?’”

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