L.A. Times documents delays in the use of aircraft on the Station fire

The Los Angeles Times is continuing to investigate some of the decisions that were made during the first 48 hours of the 160,000-acre Station fire that started on August 26 near Los Angeles and burned much of the Angeles National Forest.

Here is an excerpt from an article they posted today, which includes quotes from Don Feser, the Angeles National Forest Fire Management Officer who retired in 2007.

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Newly released records contradict a finding by the U.S. Forest Service that steep terrain prevented the agency from using aircraft to attack — and potentially contain — the Station fire just before it began raging out of control.

Station fire
Station fire. Photo from the Station Fire Facebook page

Experts on Forest Service tactics also dispute the agency’s conclusion that helicopters and tanker planes would have been ineffective because the canyon in the Angeles National Forest was too treacherous for ground crews to take advantage of aerial water dumps.

Two officers who helped direct the fight on the ground and from the sky made separate requests for choppers and tankers during a critical period on the deadly fire’s second day, according to records and interviews.

At 12:49 a.m. on Aug. 27, Forest Service dispatch logs show, a division chief made this call for aircraft:

“Fire has spotted below the road, about five acres. Order one helitanker, three airtankers, any type. . . . Have them over the fire by 0700 hours.”

But the airtankers were canceled and the helitanker was significantly delayed, according to dispatch logs, deployment reports and interviews. The Times obtained the logs, reports and volumes of other documents through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Records of the Day 2 battle do not cite the sheerness of the canyon above La CaƱada Flintridge as a reason for withholding the aircraft, which firefighters who were at the scene say might have stopped the blaze from erupting into the disaster that it became. The fire was the largest in Los Angeles County history, killing two firefighters, destroying about 90 dwellings and charring 250 square miles in one of America’s most-visited national forests.

Last month, a Forest Service review endorsed the decision to not send the helicopter and planes but failed to mention the officers’ independent calls, made more than six hours apart, for a heavy air assault.

“It just irks me to see . . . that they’re blaming the terrain for why no action was taken,” said Don Feser, a former fire chief for the forest who retired in 2007. “They’re just making excuses.”

“I’ve covered a lot of that ground, and there is only a small percentage of land that is too steep to put firefighters on,” said Feser, who worked in the Angeles National Forest for 26 years, the last seven as fire chief. “And if we can’t put firefighters on it, guess what we do? We use aircraft.”

An officer who took part in the Day 2 operation said the absence of ground crews in the canyon did not keep commanders from using aircraft to bombard the area later in the fight. “We ran helicopters down there all day,” he said.

Choppers and tankers just after sunup, he said, could have slowed the flames’ march through the canyon, doused the surrounding ridges and given ground crews a much better chance of knocking the blaze down along Angeles Crest Highway, a crucial defense line.

“You could have made a stand,” said the officer, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+