Night flight delay sparks criticism

More than two years after the devastation of the Station fire, local elected officials continue to apply heat to the U.S. Forest Service over preparations for firefighting night flights over rugged terrain in the Angeles Crest Forest.

On Sept. 9 Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich sent a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) criticizing the Forest Service for delaying completion of a study that could lead to a night-time aerial firefighting program.

“Ineffective at fighting wildfires on the urban-wildlife interface, their prohibition of night-flying aircraft prevented early containment [of the Station fire] as county fire pilots waited anxiously on the tarmac,” Antonovich wrote.

The agency originally set a goal of completing the study earlier this year. But the Forest Service needs more time to assess the risks associated with nighttime helicopter programs and expects to conclude the study in a few months, National Fire and Aviation Management Director Tom Harbour said this week.

“We want to make sure we get it right the first time,” he said.

The Forest Service does not have a night-flight program. Lawmakers have said that policy contributed to a slow response to the early stages of the Station fire, which burned for nearly two months, blackened 160,000 acres, wiped out more than 200 structures and killed two firefighters.

But Harbour emphasized the Forest Service has access to Los Angeles County nighttime helicopters.

“Helicopters were available to us at the time of the Station fire,” said Harbour. “We have made that clear.”

Since the fire, the agency has monitored firefighting assets and coordinated with communities that surround the forest, he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), an outspoken critic of the agency's handling of the Station fire, said in a statement that the Forest Service completed a study last year that proved the effectiveness of a night-flight program in the Los Angeles area.

“Inexplicably, more than a year later, the Forest Service has failed to act on the report and continues to delay implementation of a night-flying program,” Schiff said. “I hope the (Forest Service) will swiftly implement these policies before we have another catastrophic fire in the Angeles [National Forest] that could be mitigated with the right training and equipment.”

Harbour said the ongoing study addresses 130 risks identified in last year's report.

In July, the Los Angeles County Fire Department signed an agreement with the Forest Service to allow the agency access to county helicopters at night to assist firefighters on the ground. Previously, the Forest Service had limitations on requesting resources, L.A. County Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp said.

The county staffs three pilots a day for night flights and five to six during the peak fire season, Tripp said.

The nine helicopters available for nighttime firefighting frequently are used to transport patients to Los Angeles trauma centers. If they are all in use, Tripp said, the Forest Service may have to wait.

“We only have so many resources available,” he said. “At any given moment, we could have multiple fires, which could exceed our capability.”

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