USFS employees testify in Congressional Hearing about Station Fire

Employees of the U. S. Forest Service, both presently employed and retired, testified yesterday during a four-hour hearing in Pasadena, California about the response of the agency during the first 24 hours of the Station fire, which in August and September of 2009 burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles and killed two LA County Fire Department firefighters. The hearing was called by members of Congress to try to determine the reasons for the reported lack of aggressive suppression efforts, especially the use of aerial resources, while the fire was still small on the first night and the second day.

The list of witnesses testifying included:

  • Will Spyrison, a Division Chief on the Angeles National Forest and the Incident Commander of the Station fire during the first night; now retired.
  • Don Feser, former Fire Management Officer for the ANF; he retired a couple of years ago.
  • Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the USFS in Washington.
  • William Derr, retired Special Agent for the USFS.
  • Jody Noiron, Forest Supervisor, ANF
  • Casey Judd, Federal Wildland Fire Service Association

Here are some excerpts from an article in the LA Times written by Paul Pringle:

Will Spyrison, the then-division chief who oversaw the operation on the second morning, said before a standing-room-only, often boisterous audience Tuesday that he made several calls for the air tankers between about 12:30 and 3:25 a.m. and was never told that they would not arrive until two hours after he needed them.

Station fire sign burning
Station fire. Photo: Inciweb

“I knew if I didn’t have the aircraft at 7 o’clock in the morning, there’s a very short window of time … between 7 and 9 a.m. was that window of opportunity to make a difference,” said Spyrison, whose account had not been made public before.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank), who organized the panel, asked Spyrison if a 7 a.m. arrival of the tankers “could have made a critical difference in whether this fire got out of control.”

“Yes,” Spyrison said, “if it was possible to have them there at 7 o’clock in the morning.”

He then retreated a bit, saying, “You could play the what-if game” and “it’s hard to say” that the tankers would have helped knocked down the blaze before the sun heated the hillsides.

But he later said, “I went back and tried to confirm that aircraft because I knew the sense of urgency…. I needed it there by 7 to be able to, you know, make an effective attack.”

Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R- Santa Clarita) asked, “Did you ever receive an answer back?”

“No,” Spyrison said. “I asked several times for confirmation.”

Spyrison also said he did not know that a separate Martin Mars tanker had been in the air the evening before and was available to dump more than 6,000 gallons of water and gel on the fire but was turned away and directed to unload at another location.

“It would have helped,” he said.

Two former Forest Service officials said that the agency let Spyrison down.

“There was a void in overall command and control,” said former Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Don Feser.

[…]

To loud applause, L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich suggested that the county Fire Department become the lead agency for fires in the Angeles National Forest.

[…]

[Tom] Harbour and other Forest Service officials repeatedly denied that cost concerns prevented them from turning immediately to state and local agencies for crews and equipment, including aircraft, to bolster the assault on the fire. The Times reported Monday that an internal review conducted for the U.S. Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, found that financial worries delayed the arrival of “critical resources” at the fire.

Below is a video report about the hearing from from KABC:

The LA Times has some excellent photos taken on day 2 of the Station fire between 8:02 a.m. and 8:39 a.m. showing the fire first jumping across the Angeles Crest Highway. After that, the fire became very difficult to suppress.

More about the hearing:

Photo gallery
Washington Post
Glendale News-Press
LAWeekly: “Largest Fire in L.A. History Could Have Fizzled Sooner, If Not For Mystery Slacker”
Whittier Daily News

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. Google+

2 thoughts on “USFS employees testify in Congressional Hearing about Station Fire”

  1. It’s pretty funny to hear the comments of Supervisor Antonovich and the other elected officials (Schiff, McKeon, Drier, etc) commenting on the Station Fire. It is no surprise since they have no experience as a firefighter, fire manager, nor as an incident commander.

    What isn’t so funny is that Tom Tidwell (Chief of the Forest Service), Randy Moore (Regional Forester), and Jody Noiron (Angeles NF Supervisor) LIKEWISE have NO experience as fire managers nor as incident commanders, but somehow have been placed into providing supervision, direction and oversight to complex fire suppression/fire management programs.

    There are two things from this political show:

    1) It was pretty sad to see Tom Harbour emasculated and only being allowed (willing) to present the “agency talking points”, and

    2) Politicians not willing to address the root problems… The very problems THEY CREATED by not listening to the EXPERTS… Fire Managers and Incident Commanders.

    JMHO

    1. P.S. – I’m also very disappointed in the outgoing “leadership” of LACoFD Chief P. Michael Freeman for allowing the political dog and pony show to continue.

      All it has done turned firefighter vs firefighter and driven the strides gained of FIRESCOPE into the archives of history.

      Also JMHO… But thoughts shared widely from outside.. and within LACoFD.

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