Angeles National Forest Supervisor transfers months before retirement

Tom Contreras Angeles National Forest
Tom Contreras, former Forest Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest. USFS photo.

The Forest Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest transferred into a different job in mid-January months before he is scheduled to retire this spring. Tom Contreras is now serving as an assistant to the Regional Forester in Vallejo, California across the bay from San Francisco.

After Mr. Contreras left, an acting Forest Supervisor was appointed to temporarily fill the position — Daniel Lovato, currently the Deputy Forest Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest.

Mr. Contreras became the Forest Supervisor of the Angeles NF north of Los Angeles after Jody Noiron, who had been in the position since 2000, was transferred to a similar position on the nearby San Bernardino National Forest in October 2010 just days before a Congressional panel held a hearing amid accusations of mismanagement of the 2009 Station fire that burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters.

The Angeles National Forest was criticized for a very timid, less than aggressive response to the Station Fire, especially the morning of the second day when at just a few acres, Air Attack thought it could be stopped with the three air tankers that he requested to be over the fire at 7 a.m., but that request was not filled. Neither were the three requests he put in for a Very Large Air Tanker. Night flying helicopters were not used during the first night. Soon after 9 a.m. the fire took off and burned 160,000 acres.

The fire started weeks after the U.S. Forest Service distributed a memo requiring fire managers to consider using USFS resources rather than state and local fire equipment and personnel in order to save money.

The U.S. Forest Service’s report on the Station Fire found nothing to criticize about how the fire was managed in the first 46 hours, and said policies and procedures were followed. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the fire that looked at number of issues and put forward some suggestions.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Station Fire”.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave.

USFS to use one night-flying helicopter next year

Water drop on Eagle fire
A helicopter drops water on the Eagle fire in southern California, July 27, 2011. Photo by Lone Ranger.

The U.S. Forest Service has reversed course and decided to contract for one firefighting helicopter that can fly at night, becoming mission-capable in 2013. The helicopter, which will be based in southern California, will support wildfire suppression on Forest Service-protected lands within and adjacent to the Angeles, Cleveland, and San Bernardino National Forests, and the southern half of the Los Padres National Forest.

It has been years since the USFS had that capability. In 1977 a USFS helicopter and a Los Angeles county helicopter operating at night collided, killing one pilot and injuring another. Sometime after that the USFS abandoned night flying.

The USFS was criticized for attacking the 2009 Station fire near Los Angeles on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive. The fire was three to four acres at 7 a.m. on the second day, but no air tankers or helicopters were used the first night or until later in the morning on the second day. The fire took off at mid-morning on day two and later burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters. Night-flying helicopters operated by Los Angeles County were not used the first night on the fire.

After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency said they have been studying the concept, again, and announced today that they would tip-toe back into night flying, with a single helicopter in 2013.

The USFS is the lead federal agency managing the fixed-wing air tanker program, which has withered away from the 44 exclusive use large air tankers we had in 2002 to the 9 we have today. Air tankers and helicopters do not put out fires, but under the right conditions they can slow the fire enough to allow ground-based firefighters the opportunity to suppress it.

In our opinion, the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program is not  aggressively attacking emerging fires, adapting to changing conditions, or effectively managing the aerial firefighting program. Some of this can be attributed to declining firefighting budgets that are requested by the administration, approved or modified by Congress, and signed by the President.

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.

GAO report on Station fire

Station fire
Photo from InciWeb

As we reported on August 6, 2010, the two California U.S. senators and several local House members signed a letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the management of the 2009 Station fire that burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters near Los Angeles. The Associated Press is reporting today that they have obtained a draft copy of the GAO report. Here is an excerpt from the AP article:

A draft report obtained by The Associated Press discloses conflicting accounts of why an air tanker was not summoned in the early hours of what turned out to be the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history.

Critics have long said the U.S. Forest Service didn’t bring in enough aircraft and firefighters to quickly snuff the 2009 Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest. A nearby air tanker could have been called in shortly after the fire started, but the supervisor and the pilot provide different reasons why that didn’t happen.

“These decisions may be made with imperfect information and under severe time constraints, relying heavily on the professional judgment of those involved. It is not possible to know with certainty whether different decisions or actions would have resulted in a different outcome for the Station Fire,” the draft U.S. Government Accountability Office report concludes.


The report says the Forest Service needs to clear up foggy policies that could cause confusion when working with local firefighters.

In spite of the U.S. Forest Service’s November, 2009 report on the Angeles National Forest fire that found nothing to criticize about how the fire was managed in the first 46 hours, and further said 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.

USFS releases Lessons Learned Report on Station fire

A few days ago the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center posted a copy of the Station Fire Lessons Learned Report, dated October, 2010, released more than two years after the fire. The two-year delay is probably due to the firefighter fatalities and the allegations of poor decisions made during the first 24 hours of the fire. If the allegations about the less than aggressive tactics, not using night flying helicopters the first night, and a several hour delay in dispatching air tankers the next morning are true, those decisions may have prevented the fire from being contained during the first 24 hours.

Some of the headlines from the Lessons Learned Report are below.

Station fire lessons learned

More information on Wildfire Today about the Station fire.

Station fire forum fans flames of frustration

Station Fire Forum
Congressman Adam Schiff, left, speaks to residents during a Station Fire update meeting at the Altadena Public Library Thursday, April 28, 2011. Joining him on the panel, from left to right, were Stephen Gaty, Assistant Director of the Government Accountability Office, Natural Resources and Environment Team, Tom Harbor, Director of Fire and Aviation, U.S. Forest Service and Marty Dumpis, Deputy Forest Supervisor, Angeles National Forest.(SGVN/Staff Photo by Walt Mancini)

Updated, May 18, 2011

The Whittier Daily News has an interesting account of yesterday’s forum hosted by Congressman Adam Schiff about the management of the 2009 Station fire that burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles.

ALTADENA – Foothill residents left a community forum on the Station Fire with few questions answered and little confidence on Thursday, after Forest Service officials gave scant details as to how properties will be protected in the event of another devastating wildland blaze.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, moderated Thursday’s forum on the mismanagement of the Station Fire, the largest wildland fire in Los Angeles County history.

Forest Service officials, as well a representative from the Congressional Government Accountability Office, tried to allay fears of a possible repeat of the 250-square-mile blaze that killed two Los Angeles County Firefighters and destroyed dozens of homes.

Homeowners, many of whom  watched their houses burn in the Station Fire, weren’t convinced that much has changed.

“We are not safer,” said Rod Driscoll, whose Vogel Flats home was destroyed in the Station Fire. “We are going to be in the same situation this year in the area to the east that didn’t burn in the Station Fire.”

Forest Service officials were also criticized for not providing straight answers to the residents at the forum.

“I feel like some of these generalizations that you are giving, aren’t answering the questions these people are addressing,” said Sandra Thomas, Altadena Town councilwoman.

Tom Harbour, Forest Service director of aviation and fire management, spoke about the improved communications between agencies and the commitment to protecting property and lives in the event of another fire.

Harbour’s words fell short of comforting the audience.

“I got out of there with my car, my clothes on my back and my cat,” said Duncan Baird, retired battalion chief from the Pasadena Fire Department, who lost his Tujunga Canyon home in the blaze.

The Forest Service launched a feasibility study to examine the use of night-time helicopter water drops. The tactic was prohibited by the Forest Service during the Station Fire despite the proven effectiveness of Los Angeles County Fire helicopters in fighting fires from the air after dark, Harbour told the audience at the Altadena Library on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service entered into an agreement with Los Angeles County Fire to conduct nighttime air operations upon request, Harbour said.

“We are in the night flying business right now with the helicopters being supplied by Los Angeles County,” Harbour said.

But limitations in the equipment could curb the volume of night flights.

Harbour told the audience that operating the helicopters on consecutive shifts with separate flight crews could “wear out” the helicopters.

Harbour’s comments set off groans and one man yelled: “In other words nothing has changed.”

“We are going to wear out our aircraft,” said Laura Olhasso, in a rare moment of sarcasm during the meeting. “That’s less than confidence-inspiring.”

Olhasso, a councilwoman in La Canada-Flintridge, harshly criticized federal officials for not releasing information from the investigation into the Station Fire some 20 months after the disaster struck.

“I am dismayed by the pace of the inquiry,” she said.

The GAO agreed to investigate the management of the Station Fire in 2010. After seven months of inquiry, Stephen Gaty, the agency’s assistant director of natural resources, declined to comment on the initial findings from the federal probe and told the audience the report won’t be released until late 2011.

While Harbour promised the residents that the Forest Service would throw all available resources at a fire, he noted that air operations are “expensive.”

Those comments also elicited groans from the crowd, some of whom openly wondered how much a lack of funds played into the grounding of aircraft during the early stages of the Station Fire.

“If those early decisions were made because of money, I ask you not to make that decision again,” said John Grancich, of Millard Canyon.

Written by Brian Charles


UPDATE May 3, 2011

The Montrose Patch also wrote an article about the forum. Here is an excerpt:

Duncan Baird, a homeowner in the Big Tujunga Canyon area, where several dozen homes were lost, echoed the complaint of many that the Forest Service did not try to protect the area in the 48 hours after the blaze started on Thursday August 27, 2009. The Big Tujunga Canyon residents lost their homes on Saturday.

“There was a period of time all day Thursday and all day Friday when some serious mitigation could have been done with an aerial assault to pre-treat fuels in our canyon,” Baird said. “As it turned out there was absolutely zero work done in the canyon before the fire took our homes and everything we owned. ”

Baird and others questioned whether the Forest Service calculated whether saving their property would be worth the cost of deploying additional fire resources.

Harbour defended the agency’s response as being an”aggressive, assertive initial attack.”

He said cost factors are not considered when trying to put out a fire.

“We are not constrained by cost…we want to get the fire out. There is, hopefully, no question about that,” Harbour said.

UPDATE May 18, 2011:

Found another version of what happened at the forum, this time an article by Paul Pringle of the LA Times.

Thanks Dick and Greg

A firefighter talks about what happened at Camp 16 during the fatal Station fire

At Firehouse World in San Diego, Los Angeles County Firefighter Rob Morales told the story of what happened at Camp 16 on August 30, 2009 when the Station fire raced up a chimney canyon, through the camp, and claimed the lives of Captain Ted Hall and Firefighter Arnie Quinones, of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Here is an excerpt from an article at written by Ed Ballam:

…[Rob Morales] said he pulled a fire watch the night before the fire hit and he knew it was big fire by the roar and the glow, but it didn’t make a huge run overnight. He felt safe and thought the fire would pass by the camp and everything would be fine. That seemed to be the prevalent thought of the whole crew. When day broke, Morales said he had been angling to be with Capt. Hall on his truck and he was disappointed when Hall asked Quinones to go with him on the fire patrol.

Morales went back to his crew and kept an eye on the fire and watched for hot spots and embers as it came closer.

At one point, embers showered the camp and he went to see what he could do to put them out. “I soon realized there were way too many and there was nothing I could do,” Morales said.

As the fire came closer, Morales sheltered behind a metal door briefly. He thought they might lose a couple of buildings, but everyone would be OK. The fire grew worse and Morales decided to beeline to the chow hall where the other firefighters in the camp were sheltering as well.

As he headed there, he thought that would be the end of him. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said. “I heard my crew screaming like you never want to hear them scream.” He recalled looking out and seeing virtually everything in the camp on fire. “I knew we were losing and I hollered the F-word as loud as I could,” he said.

A window in the chow hall broke and then someone in the crew called out that they were going to die in the building if they stayed.

“I made a decision to leave the building,” Morales said. “I decided that if I was going to die, they were going to find me outside and not have to dig through a pile of bodies to find me.”

Even though he was in great peril, Morales said he never stopped thinking about Hall and Quinones, who he knew were either in trouble, or were outrunning the fire as they headed down the canyon.

As Morales made his way across the camp, he noticed that the area where the privately owned vehicles were parked was not burned and the air would sustain life. He radioed to the crew to run to the area where the trucks were parked and told them the air was good.

As all the members of the crew gathered, he told them to jump in the trucks as they evacuated.

“I didn’t care what truck they got into, we just needed to get out of there,” Morales said, adding that he was hoping they would catch up with Hall and Quinones on the road.

Read the rest of the article.

Here is an image we posted on May 16, 2010 when we covered the release of the official report about the burnover of Camp 16, which is incorrectly referred to in the article as “Station 16”. It is located at the top of the canyon, near the icon on the ridge.

Camp 16 from below