GAO formally releases report on Station fire

Yesterday Wildfire Today reported that the Associated Press had obtained a draft copy of the report the Government Accountability Office prepared on the controversies surrounding the Station Fire that killed two firefighters and burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles in 2009.

Now the GAO has formally released the 80-page report (5.5 MB) along with a one page summary of their findings (80 KB).

The fire seemed more or less controlable until mid-morning on the second day when it exhibited extreme fire behavior and was off to the races.

One of the issues the GAO focused on was the fact that air tankers were requested by the Incident Commander at the end of the first day to be over the fire at 7:00 a.m. the next morning. The request was handled oddly and was delayed, and conflicting information was provided to the GAO from dispatch personnel who processed the order.

There seemed, although it was not explicitly identified, that there was a preference to order U.S. Forest Service air tankers, and a hesitancy to use state aircraft. This may have been due to the USFS memo that was issued a few weeks before the Station fire requiring fire managers to consider using USFS resources rather than state and local fire equipment and personnel in order to save money. The report concluded that USFS air tankers could not have arrived at the fire before approximately 9:00 a.m. on the second day due to the crews having worked on fires into the evening the previous day, and crew rest requirements came into play.

CalFire air tankers were not ordered for the second day and they may have been available, however since there were only three air tankers unassigned that day in California the state may or may not have released them for the Station fire, preferring to hold on to them for initial attack.

The Air Tactical Group Supervisor requested a Very Large Air Tanker three times on the second day and all three requests were denied by the Incident Commander and “an Angeles National Forest fire management official”. The IC and the ANF official disagreed with the ATGS about the potential effectiveness of a VLAT. Or, (but the report does not say this) they were concerned with monetary constraints.

Some other issues addressed in the GAO report include:

  • The non-use of LA County’s night flying helicopters, and the general lack of night flying capability within the USFS;
  • The timing of ordering an incident management team;
  • Whether the USFS mobilized its own assets rather than local ones in certain instances, even though its assets were located farther away and would take longer to arrive.
  • Whether more action could have been taken to protect homes in Big Tujunga Canyon, an area where dozens of homes were destroyed.
  • Adequacy and appropriateness of firefighting strategies and tactics.
  • Sufficiency and capability of aviation assets within the USFS agencywide.

The GAO report does not provide much in the way of specific judgments or recommendations. Some of the information they sought was not available in written form, and the agency personnel they interviewed sometimes provided conflicting testimony.

These were two “executive recommendations” made by the GAO:

  1. to clarify the Forest Service’s intent and to reduce uncertainty about how its assets are to be used relative to those of other agencies, issue guidance describing when it expects its own firefighting assets to be used instead of contract or state and local agency assets, and,
  2. document the steps it plans to take, and the associated time frames, to implement the lessons it identified in its review of the Station Fire.

The official Lessons Learned document issued by the USFS can be found HERE.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

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