Fire Chief Hall takes command

James Hall has spent nearly 20 years patrolling the Angeles National Forest, doing everything from leading an engine crew to showing inner-city youth the wonders of the outdoors.

Now he is playing a leadership role in firefighting and fire prevention in the sprawling wilderness.

Last month Hall was named fire chief for the forest, capping a 33-year tour of duty with the U.S. Forest Service.

Hall first joined the agency in 1979 after a stint in the Army. He served as a squad leader of a 20-man “hot shot” firefighting crew in Northern California's Lassen National Forest in 1989 before transferring to the Angeles National Forest in 1994.

In 2006 Hall helped launch the Southern California Consortium, a Forest Service program to connect young people to the natural landscape. He has also supervised the training of Forest Service firefighters around Southern California.

In 2010 Hall was named the Angeles National Forest's deputy fire chief, and after former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Jody Noiron was reassigned to the San Bernardino National Forest, Hall became acting chief.

Hall said he was happy to take the mantle of fire chief on June 6, and that his extensive experience with the San Gabriel Mountains is a boon.

“As the deputy chief you learn every day while dealing with different emergencies,” said Hall. “One thing I learned is that I need to listen to the public and see their concerns and see how we as a national forest can help.”

Hall said the fires breaking out early in the season, such as the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, Colo., are a warning signal to other firefighters in other wilderness areas.

“The biggest challenge for us this year is because all the fires happening so early on here in the west… there might be times when we have to close parts of the national forest because of fires or because the danger is so high,” Hall said. “I'm just hoping folks understand we're doing it for their safety.”

The Angeles National Forest has been a political hot spot since the Station fire in 2009, with Rep. Adam Schiff and others holding multiple inquiries into the Forest Service's conduct in the early stages of the blaze.

Recently Schiff announced he had placed language in the Department of the Interior appropriations bill requiring the Forest Service complete a survey on developing night-flying capabilities to battle fires on the frontier where cities meet the forest.

Schiff contends nighttime water drops could have limited the Station fire.

Hall didn't comment on Schiff's proposal, but said the Angeles National Forest has an agreement with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to use the county's firefighting helicopters as needed.

“We've had an agreement in place since about September 2009, even when the Station fire was going, and shortly after that the agreement was amended,” said Hall. “If L.A. County Fire has the aircraft available and we request it, we can use night-flying helicopters on the national forest.”

L.A. County Fire Department Assistant Chief Bill Niccum said that the level of cooperation between the two agencies is high.

“We've got a long history working with [Hall] on the Angeles National Forest and feel that the interoperability between the L.A. County Fire Department and the Angeles National Forest — with our ability to go into unified command and manage large, complex, challenging incidents — is second to none,” said Niccum.

Niccum said Hall is ready for the emergencies ahead.

“I'm in the Santa Clarita area and La Cañada, of course, and any working incident we have, Jim has always been there on scene,” said Niccum. “He's got a calm demeanor and that makes him easy to work with.”

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