GAO asked to investigate USFS management of the Station fire

Station fire sign burning
Station fire. Photo: Inciweb

In addition to an internal investigation by the Inspector General’s office, now the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been asked to investigate the U. S. Forest Service’s management of last summer’s Station fire that burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles and claimed the lives of two Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters.

The two California U.S. senators and several local House members signed a letter asking the GAO to “ensure that all actions in the response to the fire were taken swiftly, properly and competently”.

In spite of the U.S. Forest Service’s November report on the Angeles National Forest fire that found nothing to criticize about how the fire was managed in the first 46 hours, and that policies and procedures were followed, many knowledgeable former wildland firefighters have accused the USFS of under-staffing the fire during it’s early stages, and attacking the fire on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive.

The GAO was asked to look into that issue as well as another revolving around recordings of telephone conversations made during the fire in the dispatch center. While it is common for dispatch centers to record radio conversations, the GAO will look into the legality of recording phone conversations without the consent of both parties. The Los Angeles Times requested the recordings last year and again this year, but Forest Service officials said they did not exist.

The Times on Wednesday obtained a copy of an internal USFS memorandum in which Forest Service Deputy Chief James Hubbard ordered all dispatch centers to stop recording calls until the matter is resolved.

You have to wonder if this mess the Forest Service is now wallowing in would have been any different, if instead of hiding their heads in the sand, their November report on the fire had been an honest and open appraisal of the management of the fire. It could have been an opportunity for learning lessons, but now it has gone nuclear, sweeping the Forest Service up into a mushroom cloud of distrust, criticism, and multiple investigations, possibly even leading to criminal charges against firefighters or fire administrators. The agency that I used to work for, or at least the Angeles National Forest, has become an embarrassment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

4 thoughts on “GAO asked to investigate USFS management of the Station fire”

  1. Yes, one does wonder what the situation would have been like had things been handled more honestly,professionally and equitably during the process of the first report on the fire. Many of us felt quite sure that this situation would raise its ugly head when we saw such a “positive” and glowing result the first time. Also, it is odd to see that people are not aware of the fact that transmissions and telephone calls are recorded at dispatch. I was always taught and told that if you didn’t want a phone conversation recorded, request it to not be. Otherwise, assume that it will be. I always figure it’s roughly the same as when you dial 911.

    One thing stands out to me about all of this… Those on the ground (from the IC down during IA) did their job the best they could with what they had.

  2. Bill,

    I have to agree with your statement 5×5.

    “The agency that I used to work for .. [ ] .. has become an embarrassment.” It is not only an embarrassment, it hinders community and firefighter safety. After 28 years of service… I’m not embarrassed… I’m ashamed.

    Hopefully the firefighters and fire leaders will be listened to for a change and beallowed LEAD UP and LEAD FORWARD… and not just let the uniformed (ignorant) senior Forest Service officials who couldn’t identify the differences between a McLeod or a Pulaski.. or can’t distinguish a fireline from a budget line be allowed to represent the Forest Service fire mission.

    If folks want the answers about wildland fire… Should they ask .. A biologist?.. A hydrologist?.. A botanist?.. An archaeologist?.. OR A WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER?

  3. Ken makes some strong statements against USFS senior management, some of it (in my opinion) a little too strong and almost insulting.
    But that aside, I believe that there are, and will continue to be, viable roles for “ologists” in the fire programs of all the natural resources agencies. Our world is way more complex than those that structural firefighters face: have you ever heard of those firefighters saying that a fire in the living room or dining room is OK, but that we have to stop fires in the bedrooms. Or, this fire is OK because it’s low intensity? No, in the firefighter world, the decison is easy: “put the wet stuff on the red stuff”, save the people first, then whatever else you can, and no matter what, everyone calls you a hero.
    In the world of wildland fire, Foresters, biologists, archeologists and Range Cons have an important role: to identifiy for the fire managers and firefighters if, where and how much fire may or may not be good for the resource we manage and protect. An example: I’ve been on large wildfires in the Southwest where an Archeologist didn’t allow the use of bulldozers in suppressions efforts because they would do more damage to sensitive Native American artifacts than the fire would do. In Yellowstone 1988, a CDF Engine Captain told the world they he could stop the fires if they just let him use dozers: fortunately the Park Superintendent (a non-Fire guy, but a believer in the role of fire in Parks) did not allow this firefighter to make a decision that would have wrongly impacted a National treasure. Foresters need fire for thinning, or to clear residues after clearcuts, but have to set the burn objectives for fire managers and burners to achieve. Otherwise too much or too little residues are left, the wrong species/diameters are left/killed, or the site is “nuked” so bad that trees and other vegetation will take decades to return; Range Cons ask fire people to burn to enhance forage and/or eliminate noxious weeds: are the firefighters the best ones to set those objectives?
    Natural resource management is a complex field, equal parts of science and art: we need all of the best minds in fire AND the “ologists” to meet the expectations of the American public for the care of their lands.

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