USFS releases transcripts of Station fire telephone recordings

Station fire sign burning
Station fire. Photo: Inciweb

The U. S. Forest Service has released transcripts of telephone conversations that were recorded between the day the Station fire started, August 26, 2009, and September 4, 2009. After at first claiming the recordings did not exist when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Los Angeles Times, the USFS said they were discovered in July, 2010.

The USFS has been the object of criticism for their perceived lack of aggressiveness in assigning an adequate number of air tankers and helicopters early in the morning on the second day of the fire. Around mid-day on day two, the fire which had been held at 15-30 acres all night, took off, unhampered by large numbers of aircraft. In addition, night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County were not requested to work the fire on the first night. The fire eventually killed two Los Angeles County firefighters and burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles.

The recordings were transcribed by professional court reporters. On the USFS site, there is a separate .pdf file for each of the 10 days. The first two are hundreds of pages long, and they are difficult to read with all the redactions of names and other personnel identifying information.

We read through the transcripts for days one and two, Aug. 26-27, and did not discover any earth-shaking information that was not already known. But there were some interesting facts:

  • At 10:09 p.m on the first night, Aug. 26, someone whose name was not disclosed in the transcription was giving information about the fire to Dispatch so that the daily Incident Status Summary (ICS-209) could be completed and submitted. At that time, according to the person on the phone, the estimated size of the fire was 15 acres, the estimated containment was at 1:00 p.m the next day, there was no potential future threat, and the growth potential was low.
  • The conversations between midnight and 12:59 a.m. appear to be attributed to the previous dates, but as near as we can decipher, at around midnight on the first night someone from the fire requested three air tankers and one helitanker to be over the fire at 7:00 a.m. on day two. The person making the request knew that it was unlikely to be filled exactly as requested, but made it clear that was what was needed.
  • Approximately 20% of the recorded phone calls were from people, probably fire personnel, requesting phone numbers of other fire personnel. This probably did not affect the outcome of the fire, but there must be a better way to provide this information, rather than to tie up dispatchers during a fire emergency.

Along with the transcripts, the USFS issued a news release. They did not apologize for at first denying the recordings existed, but the Chief of the USFS was quoted as saying “I am disappointed we did not discover the existence of these recordings earlier.”

The release also expends a lot of energy in three different paragraphs trying to deflect attention away from what they call “ill-considered attempts at humor” and “side comments or unfortunate jokes made by highly-skilled wildfire professionals”. We did not see any serious breeches of verbal protocol, but when someone repeatedly says “Don’t look over here!”, that’s all I want to do. But who has time to pour through thousands of pages of hard to read transcripts?

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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.

3 thoughts on “USFS releases transcripts of Station fire telephone recordings”

  1. They actually paid a contractor to transcribe those dispatch phone recordings? If so, the Forest Service should ask for their money back. Very poorly done.

    Ex: “Camp 37” listed on several of the first few pages is actually Captain 37… and also listed as “rost” is actually R.O.S.S.


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