Almost two years to the day after an unknown arsonist started what would become the 10th largest wildfire in modern California history, life has returned to normal in La Cañada Flintridge, but scars of the disaster remain.
While the Station fire’s perpetrator remains at large, the community has moved from rebuilding homes to rebuilding real estate values. As anxious hikers wait for beloved trails to reopen, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and U.S. Forest Service have come together with a new plan for coordination between the two agencies so that when the next wildfire breaks out, they’ll be prepared to prevent it from turning into another full-fledged disaster.
The Station fire, which started on the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2009, eventually consumed 160,557 acres of land, destroyed 209 structures and claimed the lives of two firefighters. As a result of the deaths, when evidence of arson was discovered, the case was assigned to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Division. Two years later, detectives are no closer to arresting a suspect.
Sheriff’s Det. Mike Valento has worked the case for the last two years.
Valento said that while the 146 leads the department already has cleared have yet to turn up a suspect, it’s far from a hopeless case.
“It’s by no means considered a cold case, nothing like that. It’s too early, even though it’s been two years,” said Valento.
Valento said that the investigation will remain active, “Until all the leads stop coming in over a good period of time — and that’s just not the case yet.”
Valento said that with a $150,000 reward going unclaimed, it was likely the crime had been committed by an individual working alone.
“In all the other cases I’ve worked, a lot of the times the individual’s committed the crime with at least a second person and eventually that [second] person talks,” said Valento. “Nothing’s been leaked out, nothing good, despite that award.
“I wish I could tell you something looks promising, but that’s not the case so far,” Valento said.
La Cañada Flintridge impact
La Cañada Flintridge Mayor David Spence said this week that the Station fire was a reminder to the community of the dangers posed by the environment.
“If you live in the hills and you understand that we can get a fire any day, a day like today, which is 90 degrees, and some gardener has a spark in his weed whacker or whatever, something can come up real quickly,” said Spence. “I think that the people that live in this area are very cognizant of the issues and the problems that can occur.”
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino said that the community hasn’t forgotten the fire.
“I think it’s going to be present in folks’ minds for a long time. It was a traumatic, devastating situation.”
Portantino, who authored a bill to give tax breaks to residents rebuilding their homes after the fire, said the resiliency of the community has helped it bounce back from the disaster.
“How well everyone did is a testament to those individuals who live in the district and the individual law enforcement and firefighters who worked so hard to protect homes,” said Portantino.
Still, Spence said that the large concrete barriers, known as K-rails, that populate the northern part of La Cañada Flintridge remain an ugly reminder of the Station fire’s devastation. They were put in place to prevent mudslide damage during heavy rainfall on the denuded mountains behind the city.
“It reminds everybody that there was a pretty serious disaster; and that in turn is transferred into a bad situation for real estate,” said Spence. “The market and the value of the homes has been falsely suppressed because of the Station fire situation.”
Ready for the next one
Two years later, the question remains: Are local public agencies prepared to handle another Station fire?
Spence praised the work done by the L.A. County Fire Department to fight the fire, but said that the miscommunications and lack of effective early response by the National Forest Service were problems that needed to be remedied.
Spence said he hopes the Angeles National Forest’s new supervisor, Thomas Contreras, will heed lessons from the Station fire.
“Hopefully we’ll have some fresh ideas and some people with some intellectual skills that will understand the seriousness of calling the finest fire department in the world, which is the L.A. County Fire Department,” said Spence.
Congressman Adam Schiff has led a charge for answers from the Forest Service as to whether acquiring the ability to fly at night could prevent another disaster.
“It’s certainly possible that if they had a night-flight capability, that the fire could have been put down in the first day or two,” said Schiff.
Schiff said he was upset that that Forest Service wasn’t moving fast enough to address these concerns.
“Appallingly, two years after the Station fire they still have not issued their report as to whether they need to once again do night flights,” said Schiff. “We could have another brutal fire season and the Forest Service would be utterly unprepared.“
L.A. County Assistant Fire Chief Bill Niccum said that by instituting a new unified command policy last spring, the fire department had helped alleviate this issue.
“No matter where we are in the forest, if [a fire] threatens L.A. County, then we go into what we call unified command,” said Niccum. “If we’re in unified command and there’s a threat to our community, we can fly at night.”
Niccum said that the fire department has also worked to improve its coordination with the Forest Service.
“We really did a shakedown of our incident command system so everybody knows everybody’s role and responsibilities and communications,” said Niccum. “Our ability to co-manage large, complex, challenging wildland incidents has proven a model for agencies across the nation.”
Spence said that the last two years have brought a new level of preparedness.
“Being the mayor five times, I’ve seen these disasters come and go,” said Spence. “And I would say that we are probably more ready now that we’ve ever been for a fire disaster.”