GAO formally releases report on Station fire

Yesterday Wildfire Today reported that the Associated Press had obtained a draft copy of the report the Government Accountability Office prepared on the controversies surrounding the Station Fire that killed two firefighters and burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles in 2009.

Now the GAO has formally released the 80-page report (5.5 MB) along with a one page summary of their findings (80 KB).

The fire seemed more or less controlable until mid-morning on the second day when it exhibited extreme fire behavior and was off to the races.

One of the issues the GAO focused on was the fact that air tankers were requested by the Incident Commander at the end of the first day to be over the fire at 7:00 a.m. the next morning. The request was handled oddly and was delayed, and conflicting information was provided to the GAO from dispatch personnel who processed the order.

There seemed, although it was not explicitly identified, that there was a preference to order U.S. Forest Service air tankers, and a hesitancy to use state aircraft. This may have been due to the USFS memo that was issued a few weeks before the Station fire requiring fire managers to consider using USFS resources rather than state and local fire equipment and personnel in order to save money. The report concluded that USFS air tankers could not have arrived at the fire before approximately 9:00 a.m. on the second day due to the crews having worked on fires into the evening the previous day, and crew rest requirements came into play.

CalFire air tankers were not ordered for the second day and they may have been available, however since there were only three air tankers unassigned that day in California the state may or may not have released them for the Station fire, preferring to hold on to them for initial attack.

The Air Tactical Group Supervisor requested a Very Large Air Tanker three times on the second day and all three requests were denied by the Incident Commander and “an Angeles National Forest fire management official”. The IC and the ANF official disagreed with the ATGS about the potential effectiveness of a VLAT. Or, (but the report does not say this) they were concerned with monetary constraints.

Some other issues addressed in the GAO report include:

  • The non-use of LA County’s night flying helicopters, and the general lack of night flying capability within the USFS;
  • The timing of ordering an incident management team;
  • Whether the USFS mobilized its own assets rather than local ones in certain instances, even though its assets were located farther away and would take longer to arrive.
  • Whether more action could have been taken to protect homes in Big Tujunga Canyon, an area where dozens of homes were destroyed.
  • Adequacy and appropriateness of firefighting strategies and tactics.
  • Sufficiency and capability of aviation assets within the USFS agencywide.

The GAO report does not provide much in the way of specific judgments or recommendations. Some of the information they sought was not available in written form, and the agency personnel they interviewed sometimes provided conflicting testimony.

These were two “executive recommendations” made by the GAO:

  1. to clarify the Forest Service’s intent and to reduce uncertainty about how its assets are to be used relative to those of other agencies, issue guidance describing when it expects its own firefighting assets to be used instead of contract or state and local agency assets, and,
  2. document the steps it plans to take, and the associated time frames, to implement the lessons it identified in its review of the Station Fire.

The official Lessons Learned document issued by the USFS can be found HERE.

Santa Maria air tanker base to reopen

Santa Maria air tanker base
Fire retardant tanks at Santa Maria air tanker base. Photo: Central Coast Jet Center

Since the staffing at the Santa Maria air tanker base 55 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California was eliminated on March 19, 2009, which downgraded the staff to call when needed, several fire chiefs in the area have been campaigning to reinstate the full time positions at the base. At that time two key tanker base positions — fixed-wing base manager and assistant fixed-wing base manager — were eliminated as part of a reorganization of the Los Padres National Forest staff.

Today Peggy Hernandez, the Forest Supervisor announced that the appropriate staff will be on hand at Santa Maria from October 21 through November 15 of this year, and during next year’s declared fire season, to reload air tankers if there is a fire in the area.

The call when needed status meant that if there was a nearby fire on which air tankers were used, the aircraft had to fly to Paso Robles to reload with fire retardant, which is 58 miles north of Santa Maria. Without a full time staff, it can take several hours or perhaps much longer to round up personnel qualified and available to run the base at Santa Maria, and then the mechanical systems have to be put back into service. [Corrected to say Paso Robles instead of Porterville for the alternate base.]

Summerland-Carpenteria Fire Chief Michael Mingee, who serves as President of the Association of Santa Barbara Fire Chiefs, welcomed the announcement.

“This has been a great example of government agencies at all levels working in cooperation for the betterment of public safety,” Chief Mingee said.

Wildfire Today has covered this issue previously:

 

20 years later, potential for another Oakland Hills fire?

It was 20 years ago today that a rapidly moving fire in the Oakland Hills east of San Francisco ravaged a community. Here is the way we describe it in our Infamous Fires Around the World document:

The “Tunnel Fire”, commonly referred to as the Oakland Hills fire or East Bay Hills fire, occurred on Sunday October 20, 1991. The fire killed 25 people (23 civilians, 1 police officer, and 1 firefighter), injured 150, and destroyed 2,449 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. Eleven of the fire victims died in traffic jams on Charing Cross Road while evacuating. Eight others died on narrow streets in the same area. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.

1991 Oakland Hills fire progression mapThe fire started when an ember from a grass fire the previous day blew beyond the fire hoses that were still on the fire perimeter and started a new fire. Houses, like the vegetation, have grown back and some of the residents that lived through the 1991 fire are worried when they look around and see that some of their new neighbors are not doing as much as they could to prevent another disaster.

Here is an excerpt from an interesting article in the Mercury News:

As autumn returned and the mercury hovered in the 90s in the Oakland hills, Milt Brown started to feel anxious.

Twenty years ago, on a scorching, wind-whipped day, he lost two houses in one of the nation’s deadliest and most destructive urban wildfires, an inferno that jumped two freeways, destroyed more than 3,800 homes and killed 25 people, including the Browns’ former baby sitter.

Although he tries not to dwell on the horrible memories — or the chance of another devastating blaze — Brown and other survivors of the Oakland hills fire worry that the painful lessons of that day are being forgotten. Or worse, they are being ignored by the many newer residents who didn’t experience firsthand the hell of Oct. 20, 1991. Even the subtlest signs of danger make him nervous.

“I’m looking at the two houses below me and the branches are touching the house,” Brown said from his perch on Buckingham Boulevard — less than a minute’s walk from where the fire erupted on a hot Sunday morning. “I’m in a box canyon. If someone throws a match in there it will set the whole block off.”

But it isn’t just those who lived through the Oakland hills fire who are anxious about what they fear is a growing complacency that has built up alongside the stately homes in these steep, once-woodsy enclaves. Fire officials say that time has not only given rise to dense stands of fast-growing and fire-susceptible eucalyptus on public lands, it has also given vegetation on private property throughout the hills 20 years to mature. It often takes a second notice before residents take heed and clear a defensible space around their homes to protect it from fire.

Thanks go out to Dick

Wildland firefighter memorial dedicated in California

Dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial
Dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial. Photo: Southwest Riverside News Network

After two decades of planning and overcoming funding shortfalls, the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial was dedicated on Saturday west of Elsinore, California off the Ortega Highway about two miles from the location of the 1959 Decker fire which killed six firefighters. It is a few hundred yards east of the U. S. Forest Service El Cariso engine station, which is across the highway from the former location of the El Cariso Hot Shot camp. I worked at both places in the 1970s.

More than 300 firefighters and family members paid tribute at the memorial which will display about 200 plaques in remembrance of the 400 people who died fighting wildland fires in California.

Here is an excerpt from an article at SWNN.com:

After more than 50 years, Carlo Guthrie still cries over her husband’s death—and on Saturday, her tears were bittersweet. Carlo, the wife of fallen California Division of Forestry fire truck driver John Guthrie, was among the more than 300 who gathered for the dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial off the Ortega Highway.

“The tears will never stop. I bet you everything when there’s a wildland fire, there’s widows out there watching that fire, I always am,” she said. “And now there’s a place where John and all California firefighters who gave the ultimate sacrifice can be honored.”

The memorial site sits off the Ortega in the hills above Lake Elsinore, and near the grounds where crews battled the deadly 1959 Decker blaze, which claimed the life of John and five other firefighters.

It serves as a spot where families, comrades and survivors can reflect. The memorial consists of a red brick Maltese cross, guarded by a rock wall with fire plaques embossed with the names of fatal fires, the county, year and the number of fire personnel lost in the blaze. The ground in front of the monument is covered in red bricks engraved with the names of fallen firefighters.

Photos and more details about the dedication ceremony.

Web site for the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial

Fire Chiefs pressure USFS to reopen Santa Maria air tanker base

Since the Santa Maria air tanker base northwest of Santa Barbara was downgraded by the Los Padres National Forest on March 19, 2009 from a full-time to a Call When Needed base, some fire chiefs in the area have been lobbying the U. S. Forest Service to reverse that decision. We have written about this issue several times, but it is in the news again, as even more fire chiefs have gotten involved. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Barbara Independent:

Chiefs Demand Fire Support

Want Full Service Restored at Santa Maria Air Tanker Base

Thursday, September 15, 2011

by NICK WELSH

Just two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the fire chiefs of Santa Barbara County let loose the opening shot of what’s been a long-simmering campaign to pressure the U.S. Forest Service to restore “full-service” status to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, as opposed to the “call when needed” designation the base has had for the past two years. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio — accompanied by Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace and Operations Chief Terry McElwee — showed up at Santa Barbara City Hall to ask the council to sign a ceremonial letter expressing their support for the fire chiefs in a battle of political will with the Forest Service. While the chiefs wore the brass, it was former county supervisor — and longtime rancher — Willy Chamberlin who held the floor, urging the councilmembers to hang tough and “not weaken.” Chamberlin introduced himself as a “self-appointed bird dog” when it came to air-tanker readiness, but his remarks to the council were relatively tame compared to comments he made in the hallways outside the council chambers. There, Chamberlin blistered the Forest Service for downgrading the status of the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base in 2009. Not only has the loss of a full-service base cost the federal government money, he said, it put county residents at greater peril in the face of wildland fires. Had the tanker base remained at full service, Chamberlin insisted that the Jesusita Fire of 2009 — which destroyed 80 homes — might well have been contained early on. “I’m not saying it would have stopped that fire,” Chamberlin said, “but it would most definitely have been a very different fire.” The chiefs, standing next to him, nodded in assent.

Thanks go out to Dick

Clearing the Air: Perspectives on the Large Cost Fire Review

Below is a guest post written by Mike DeGrosky, the CEO of Guidance Group, Inc.

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I want to thank Bill for allowing me to blog as a guest at Wildfire Today.

In 2010, my company, Guidance Group, Inc. coordinated the work of the Secretary of Agriculture’s Independent Large Cost Fire Review Panel, which reviewed the six fiscal year 2009 wildland fires whose suppression costs exceeded $10 million. The six fires included the Backbone, Big Meadow, Knight, La Brea, and Station fires in California and the Williams Creek fire in Oregon.

Phil Schaenman (of TriData Corporation) and I presented the Panel’s final report in a briefing to the U.S. Forest Service on August 13, 2010 followed by a briefing with the Secretary of Agriculture’s Chief of Staff later that week.  Apparently, sometime after these briefings, but before the Departments of Agriculture and Interior had completed their review and transmitted the report to Congress, someone, who remains unknown, leaked the report.  The report found its way to a group of Forest Service retirees as well as Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Pringle, both who were critics of the Angeles National Forest’s handling of the Station Fire.

Large Fire Cost ReviewWhen excerpts from the report began showing up in LA Times articles critical of the Forest Service and in Congressional panel hearings, a commenter on Wildfire Today accused me of leaking our own report.  Not only was this accusation false, this person offered neither justification for their accusation or evidence to support it.  In fact, it would not have been in our interest to leak the report and endanger our reputations and working relationship with the Forest Service, but you never know why people get the ideas they do.  At the time, in deference to the Forest Service and their review process, I felt it best to say little.  However, now that the report is out in the public domain, I would like to clear the air.

In reality, we first became aware that the report had found its way outside agency circles in early October, when I received a call from a member of the Forest Service retirees’ group challenging the Angeles Forest’s handling of the Station Fire.  The caller complimented our work, commended the report, and asked me to verify its authenticity.  When I enquired as to how he had come to be in possession of the report, he told me that the group had received the report “from a contractor’s association.”  I can only speculate as to how it found its way to Paul Pringle at the LA Times.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Pringle never contacted either the panelists or I.  I would have loved the opportunity to help him put his story in context.  Interestingly, the members of Congress who conducted panel hearings on the Station Fire in October never contacted us either, nor have the various organizations investigating the Forest Service’s action regarding the Station Fire. That is, in part, my purpose for my entry on Bill’s blog.  Those who want to understand how the 2009 Large Fire Cost Review does (and does not) relate to the Station Fire need to know a few things that have gotten lost as the controversy took on a life of its own..

First, having the report in the public sphere was not troubling to us.  We are proud of our work and do not fear public scrutiny of it.  However, a few people focused on a single paragraph taken from a six-page section discussing the Station Fire.  Wanting it to support their point of view, they stretched a few phrases beyond their intended purpose and presented these passages outside the context in which the Panel made them.  For example, the Panel’s findings included the following:

Incident Management – The Station fire represented a very large, complex incident, in rugged terrain, involving multiple jurisdictions at the edge of the City of Los Angeles. Fire personnel faced extraordinary challenges. However, the agency personnel, including agency administrators who were actively engaged, handled the situation as well as one might expect given the circumstances. The fact that the IMT came from southern California and had experience with this type of high profile fire proved advantageous” (p. 26).

and:

Initial Response – Controversy continues over whether Forest personnel could have stopped the fire on the morning of August 27 (day 2). Critics claim that if the Forest had airtankers and heavy helicopters on station over the incident at first light, they may have stopped the fire’s spread. If true, more than $90M in cost could have been avoided. However, the Forest Service, Los Angeles County, and CAL FIRE jointly reviewed the initial and extended attack. Their report, issued on November 13, 2009, found that the initial attack ICs acted appropriately and made prudent decisions regarding the safety of firefighters, including those involved in air operations. Further, the report determined that aggressive air operations in the early daylight hours of day 2, without necessary ground support, would not have been effective. The matter remains under investigation and, therefore, beyond the scope of this Panels’ review” (p. 26).

In short, the Panel was largely complimentary of the Forest Service’s incident management under nightmare conditions and, more importantly, the Large Fire Cost Review for FY2009 purposefully avoided the initial or extended attack of the Station Fire.  However, these facts remained largely unreported.

Unfortunately, the Panel’s report included an unintended choice of words, causing confusion.  Citing factors that increased fire costs, in referencing troubles with ordering federal resources, the report described how, in early 2009, the Regional Forester issued a letter providing budget guidance for the region’s fire preparedness funds.  In the course of our fieldwork, it became obvious that field personnel interpreted the letter to mean that the Forests should order Forest Service personnel and equipment before ordering state or local resources; and that this interpretation had delayed, on occasion, the arrival of critical resources.  As an example, the report recounted a situation in which the nearby Morris fire released a strike team of CAL FIRE engines who returned to San Diego while an order for a Federal strike team of engines for the Station fire remained unfilled.

Unfortunately, we inadvertently included the word “initially” in the description of events, leading some to believe that this example had bearing on the controversy concerning the extended attack of the Station Fire, despite the Panel’s statement that the initial attack of the Station Fire was beyond its scope.  Some even called it the “smoking gun” that they had been seeking.

In reality, this strike team (and another that was reassigned) were released on August 29th, three days after the start of the Station Fire, not during initial attack.  However, it is important to note that, way back in October, as the Paul Pringle referenced report passages in the LA times and the report came up in Congressional panel hearings, we acknowledged to the Forest Service that this section of text described resource orders made early in the fire, but not during initial or extended attack.  I still contend that other text in the Station Fire section of the report made that context clear.  Inclusion of the word “initially” was inadvertent, and the Panel was aware that the situation occurred days after the fire’s start.

I am pleased that the report is finally out in the public eye, where people can read it for themselves rather than speculating on its contents or allowing others to interpret it for them.  I hope that these remarks clarify the relationship between the Large Fire Cost Review for FY2009 and the controversy surrounding the Station Fire.