Piece of Mind: Hard questions, disappointing answers

What reading material is on your bedside table this December week? I’d like to be able to recommend a recent release that came into my hands the other day, but it’s a real snooze.

The 80-page report issued by the United States Government Accountability Office: “Station Fire — Forest Service’s Response Offers Potential Lessons for Future Wildland Fire Management” heaps bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy. Do not bother cracking it open unless you’re in the mood to be discouraged. Those of you intrepid enough to take it on can find it online at www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-155. Go there to find the highlights page, and, to the right of the highlights, a link labeled “accessible text” that will give you the whole schmear. Or email me and I’ll send you the link.

You remember the Station fire, right? We are all still living with its lingering effects, most particularly the threat of debris flows. If you were not living here at the time, a brief recap: It started on the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2009 and ended in October after consuming more than 160,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, destroying dozens of homes and killing two. The Forest Service determined that the fire was the result of arson. The arsonist has not been caught.

Local officials demanding answers about what seemed to many of us to have been extraordinarily bad fire management on the part of the Forest Service (but not the individual firefighters, to whom we are grateful), looked to the GAO to dig in and find them.

In this namby-pamby report, which took a full year to produce and has numerous appendixes, tables and maps, I didn’t find any real meat. There are disappointing phrases along the lines of, “We were unable to determine....” and “We were unable to fully answer....”

Another tidbit that caught my eye: The aviation supervisor who declined the use of the Martin Mars air tanker on the day the fire started had since retired, so those writing the report said they could not get his perspective on why this key fire-fighting tool, which was available, had not been used. I’d like a fuller explanation of why they could not interview this retired supervisor. No telephone service to his address? No other way to contact him?

They also say they could not pinpoint causes of other lapses because of conflicting statements provided by various dispatchers. This tells me we have dispatchers who either don’t know how to communicate, or who realize they need to cover their tails for having made errors. And apparently our government has no way of squeezing the truth out of them.

It’s astonishing to be reminded, when reading the report, that by the night of Aug. 27, approximately 500 homes were threatened. By Aug. 28 that number grew to 1,800 in La Cañada and La Crescenta. One day later, that number increased to a whopping 10,000 homes.

The report does recommend that the Forest Service better establish how to allocate firefighting assets and coordinate/engage the assistance of outside agencies. The GOA also calls for an outline of the steps the UFS plans to take to implement lessons learned from the Station fire. That’s it. Pretty much the same recommendations any of us might have come up with ourselves by, say, Sept. 1, 2009.

I hope when the time comes that Southern California Edison is asked to answer hard questions in the wake of the Nov. 30 windstorms, we won’t be presented with another government-produced 80-page tome that takes a year to assemble and only gently suggests the utility improve its disaster management plan.


Have you finished your gift-shopping tasks? In case you’ve been too busy to look at the calendar, Hanukkah began Tuesday and Christmas is Sunday. Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!

CAROL CORMACI is managing editor of the La Cañada Valley Sun. She can be reached at ccormaci@valleysun.net or carol.cormaci@latimes.com.

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