Paul Pringle, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, continues to uncover details about the management of last summer’s Station fire on the Angeles National Forest in southern California. The U. S. Forest Service has been criticized for an anemic commitment of resources on August 27, the second day of the fire, specifically not assigning a significant number of air resources until mid-morning. In the most recent article, dated today, an Air Attack Group Supervisor that was over the fire at 7 a.m. on day two reported that the fire was three to four acres at that time. His pleas for air tankers were rebuffed, and later that morning the fire took off, eventually killing two Los Angeles County firefighters and burning 160,000 acres.
Here is an excerpt from the article.
Just after first light, a tactical observation plane took off from its old military base in Hemet for an urgent mission above the cathedral peaks of the Angeles National Forest.
The two-man crew had been deployed to direct an air assault on the few acres of brush still burning on Day 2 of last summer’s Station fire, which had been nearly contained the evening before.
As the crew prepared for the arrival of three or more air tankers, conditions appeared good for knocking the blaze down once and for all. Winds were calm, and the sun had yet to rise above the pine-crowned mountaintops to heat the thick carpet of chaparral where the fire had flared overnight.
Capt. Perri Hall, a veteran air attack officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who was over the blaze minutes before 7 a.m. on Aug. 27, radioed the U.S. Forest Service with the intention of bringing in the tankers, a lead plane and helicopters.
There was no answer.
“I made several attempts to contact someone on the ground … with no luck,” Hall recounts in a report. “I then attempted to make contact with [the Angeles National Forest] on the command frequencies.”
The minutes were passing.
“I finally was able to make contact … and ask for the lead plane to be started ASAP,” he says. “They advise the lead plane would not be available until 0900 hours.
“I then ask to start any air tankers they had and again I was told nothing available until 0900-0930 hours. “I then ask if there were any heli-tankers available and if so get them started. Again I was told nothing available until 0930 hours.
“I gave them a quick report on conditions of 3-4 acres [burning] … with potential of a major fire.”
That potential began turning into reality about an hour later. The fire jumped a critical defense line along Angeles Crest Highway and raced through the dried-out scrub and trees, becoming the biggest conflagration in Los Angeles County history. Two county firefighters were killed.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the LA Times obtained copies of recordings of radio conversations from day two of the fire.
On one recording, a Forest Service officer is heard calling at 3:10 a.m. for confirmation of a request made more than two hours earlier for three tankers and other aircraft to be over the blaze at 7 a.m. He is told that the order had been placed and that the Forest Service is “going to see at morning time if we can get [the aircraft] reassigned from the Morris” fire burning nearby.
At 6:49 a.m., on another recording, an officer asking about the lead plane is informed that it would “hold along with the tankers for now.”
The Forest Service has blamed the tardy arrival of the tankers on the need for pilots to rest and a lack of available relief planes. But The Times has reported that according to federal records and state officials, the Forest Service failed to fill the order for tankers that its commander placed shortly before 1 a.m. on Day 2, even though Cal Fire had several of the planes available.
Former Forest Service officials say Hall’s account and the recordings seem to confirm that a separate order for the Station fire tankers was never filled and that the agency had instead opted to wait for planes that had been used the day before on the Morris blaze. Those tankers did not begin taking off until after 8:40 a.m.
“The problem wasn’t the lack of resources,” said former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Don Feser. “The problem was the lack of will to acquire the resources…. I don’t see any real sense of urgency.”
Meanwhile, as Hall’s narrative continues, he pleads in vain for more planes and other support:
“I made three requests for the DC-10 (Tanker 910) … and all three were denied. I made two requests for a [helicopter coordinator to help manage the attack] with no fill.”
In November the USFS issued a report that analyzed the early stages of the fire and concluded that:
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.