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.