USFS report says steep slopes and fuel conditions inhibited initial attack of Station Fire

After a review of the first 46 hours of the management of the Station fire, a five-person panel concluded that appropriate decisions were made on the fire, which eventually burned 160,000 acres on the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles.

The area of initial attack and the early perimeter of the Station Fire, Sept. 26, 2009. Google Earth image from USFS report.

The panel was comprised of two representatives of the U. S. Forest Service, one from L.A. County Fire Department, one from CalFire, and a person from private industry that specializes in decision making.

A quick review of the 66-page report which was released on November 13 found no criticism of the U.S. Forest Service or L.A. County Fire Department.
One issue that appeared in the media was that the number of ground and air resources assigned to the fire on the second day was not adequate, and this contributed to the fire becoming the largest in the recorded history of LA County.

But the report says:

Additional resources during the evening of August 26 [the day the fire started] and morning of August 27 would not have improved the effectiveness of operations during that operational period and would have resulted in needless exposure of firefighters to the hazards of wildland fire.

It goes on to say that the extremely steep terrain and the dense, dry vegetation made it difficult or at times impossible to safely take direct suppression action on some portions of the fire.

On the evening of August 26, spot fires occurred below the Angeles Crest Highway, near the point of fire origin, and were not accessible by firefighters due to excessively steep terrain, limited visibility, and decadent, thick brush. Aircraft use, without subsequent engagement of ground forces, would have been ineffective.

According to the report, the review panel found that:

  • The Angeles National Forest had in place at the time of the incident an up-to-date staffing and action guide for initial attack.
  • The actions taken by the Angeles National Forest and the Forest Supervisor with respect to overall incident objectives—controlling the fire at the smallest acreage practicable consistent with firefighter safety considerations, were consistent with the forest’s land management plans.
  • The origin of the Station Fire was in extremely rugged terrain with limited opportunities for safe suppression activities by ground-based suppression resources.
  • The dry, dense brush in the area of the fire was at high risk for potentially extreme fire activity and at a level that posed unacceptable risk to firefighters.
  • Firefighters made cooperative efforts to engage the fire at critical points during the daylight phase of initial attack. Control of the incident was prevented because of a spot fire that occurred in an inaccessible location with limited visibility and thick, tall brush.
  • The ordering and assignment of firefighting resources to initial attack was appropriate and consistent with accepted fire management practices. Additional ground tactical resources would not have improved the effectiveness of operations because they could not be safely deployed.
  • Incident management decisions made during the review period were consistent with generally accepted incident management practices. Decisions made by initial attack incident commanders reflected sound judgment of the operational situation and were prudent with respect to firefighter effectiveness, safety, and suppression resource deployment.
  • The review panel found no evidence or indication that initial attack incident commanders felt unduly constrained to inappropriately reduce direct suppression costs.

In conclusion the report says:

  • Incident managers during the initial attack phase of the Station Fire acted in a manner consistent with best professional practices as accepted by wildland firefighting agencies, and
  • Deployed suppression resources under conditions where firefighters would be safe and effective.
  • In light of the extremely challenging topography encountered during initial attack and the highly volatile fire and vegetation conditions, incident commanders were reasonable and prudent in not exposing firefighters to actions that would have been ineffective and compromised their safety.

While we support firefighters taking no action unless it can be done safely, it is unusual for an investigative report on a complex incident like the Station fire to have no criticism. You could say no self-criticism, since three of the five members of the panel represented the USFS and LA County fire department, both responsible for the management of the fire or heavily involved as a cooperator, and both were the targets of criticism from the media and some members of the public.

UPDATE at 9:23 p.m. November 13, 2009:

The LA Times has an article on this report for which they interviewed John Tripp, a member of the 5-person panel that wrote the report, who also is the chief deputy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The Times asked him about the decision that was made by the fire managers to not aggressively attack the fire early in the morning on Day 2 with helicopters. Chief Tripp was quoted as saying that he agreed with the conclusions stated in the report that the fire managers “followed the policies and procedures appropriately”, but he stopped short of endorsing the decision about the helicopters on the second day.

From the Times’ article:

“It’s their fire and they’re running it,” he said. “Why wasn’t that helicopter there? That’s the question.”

He said it “was not my role” in the review to second-guess such decisions.
Hmmm. It makes you wonder what WAS the role of the 5-person investigation panel?

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.