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.


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).


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.

Large Fire Cost Review released

Dollar SignThe U.S. Forest Service has released the Large Fire Cost Review for fiscal year 2009 (Oct. 1, 2008 through Sept. 30, 2009). It is posted on their Publication/Resources page.

Here are direct links to the related documents; they are all .pdf files:

An independent panel managed by Guidance Group, Inc. reviewed the six fiscal year 2009 wildland fires whose suppression costs exceeded $10 million (M). The six fires were: Backbone ($16.9M), Big Meadow ($16.9M), Knight ($12.1M), La Brea ($34.9M), Station ($94.7M), and Williams Creek ($14.2M). The Williams Creek fire occurred in Oregon, the others in California.

The review was conducted by:

  • Mike Degrosky, founder and CEO of Guidance Group, Inc.; DeGrosky’s emergency service background spans 34 years, including service as a rural fire forester, fire management specialist, unit fire supervisor, fire program manager volunteer fire department captain, career fire department training officer and consultant to fire and emergency organizations. He has served as a member of interagency IMTs and maintains current qualifications as an Operations Section Chief Type 2 and Incident Commander Type 3. DeGrosky has been a principal researcher and interviewer for several milestone Forest Service studies.
  • Philip Schaenman, President and founder of TriData. He is a senior consultant specializing in risk management for fire operations, and performance metrics for the fire service; Associate Administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration from 1976–1981
  • Donald Artley, past National Fire Director for the National Association of State Foresters working out of Boise; past Montana State Forester; past Chair of National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group; past NWCG Chair.
  • Richard Mangan,owner/president of Blackbull Wildfire Services, LLC; Type 1 Operations Section Chief; past USFS Forest Staff Officer; has served on numerous wildfire fatality investigations.
  • Peter Moy, CPA; has participated in financial and cost effectiveness reviews of many fire departments studies.
  • Paul Woodward, Professor in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, and President of Ram Fire International Inc.

Wildfire Today will be covering this 86-page report in more detail in the coming days. Check back later to read more coverage of this important report.

Which large fires are reviewed?

Earlier on Wildfire Today there was a discussion about the policy and thresholds that required these large cost fire reviews. The USFS has a policy requiring that their regional offices conduct reviews. Here is a quote from their “Region Large Fire Cost Review Guidebook, May, 2007“.

Each Region must [review] at least eight fires over 5.0M (if applicable for the region) and no less than 75% of their total fires over $5.0M. For example, if a region has 8 fires that meet the threshold they must do all 8 of them; if they have 15 fires that meet the threshold then 11 fires need to be reviewed (75% of 15 fires).

Congress has a different requirement, as stated in House Report 111-316 – Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010.

The conferees reiterate that both the Interior Department and the Forest Service should ensure that cost containment is an important priority when suppressing wildland fires. Both Departments must examine and report promptly to the Congress and on agency websites, using independent panels on each and every individual wildfire incident which results in suppression expenses greater than $10,000,000.

USFS modifies night flying requirements

A Los Angeles County fire helicopter does a drop over a hotspot in Rancho Palos Verdes on Aug. 28, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
A Los Angeles County fire helicopter does a drop over a hotspot in Rancho Palos Verdes on Aug. 28, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill)

The U. S. Forest Service (USFS) has modified their internal regulations for operating helicopters at night. Effective October 13, 2010, multi-engine helicopters are no longer required for night flights. Single-engine helicopters may now be used if they are powered by a turbine engine.

This was the standard that had been in effect since April 19, 2009 (From FSM 5700, 5716.2):

5716.2 – Night Flying
Use only multi-engine aircraft for night flights.

The new regulation:

5716.2 – Night Flying
Use only multi-engine or turbine powered single-engine aircraft for night flights that meet the applicable requirements in FAR Part 91 and Part 61as referenced in FSH 5709.16 or applicable contracts.


Low-level helicopter flight operations will only be conducted using NVG [Night Vision Goggles]. Helicopters will be approved for such an operation.

This will make a much larger pool of helicopters available to be considered for night flying. However it is our understanding that modifications may have to be made to some helicopters in order for them to be compatible with night vision goggles, including the ability to turn the instrument lights down to a very low level so that they do not overwhelm the goggles.

This change may indicate that the USFS actually IS beginning to take a look at restoring the night-flying helicopter program. After the USFS was criticized by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and some politicians for not using helicopters during the first night of the Station Fire in August, 2009, their Fire and Aviation Management Director Tom Harbor was quoted as saying:

We are in the process . . . of one more time taking a look at night-flying operations. But we will have to make sure that those operations, before we change our policy, are worth the benefits.

The USFS had a night flying program in the mid-1970’s until two helicopters collided 1977, one operated by the USFS and the other by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The helicopters were preparing to land at a water reloading point. Both pilots were wearing night-vision goggles. One of the pilots was killed, and the other sustained serious injuries.

In July of 2008 Wildfire Today conducted a poll, asking:

“Should helicopters fight fire at night?”

At the close of the poll 231 people had voted. The results were:

Yes: 39.8%
No: 51.9%
Don’t Know: 8.2%

Poll helicopters night flying July 2008

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

LA Times: USFS cost concerns delayed response to Station Fire

Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Pringle has written another article about the Station fire — the fire that in 2009 burned 160,000 acres near Los Angeles and killed two LA County Fire Department firefighters. The newspaper obtained a copy of a “Large Cost Fire Review” that was commissioned by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the department that includes the U. S. Forest Service.

Here is an excerpt:

The review states that because the Forest Service had instructed managers to hold down costs, “the decision on the Station fire to initially order only federal personnel delayed arrival of critical resources.”

Tom Harbour, head of fire and aviation for the Forest Service, said he did “not know the specifics” of the findings but suggested that the conclusion about cost worries could be “an error.” He said that all orders for crews, equipment and aircraft were filled during the first two days of the fire, which broke out Aug. 26, 2009, and burned for six weeks.

Harbour added that, given the terrain, the decision to take an indirect approach to the flames in the backcountry was sound. “That’s some really, really rugged country,” he said.

But Don Feser, former fire chief for Angeles National Forest, said the inquiry indicates that the officials who led the attack “allowed the fire to run. No action was taken in terms of aggressive perimeter control.”

The findings in the “Large Cost Fire Review,” a copy of which The Times has obtained, will be addressed by Los Angeles-area House members during a public panel Tuesday morning in Pasadena.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank), who organized the session, said in a statement that the review “raises serious questions about whether a Forest Service policy intended to limit costs prevented the timely use of resources…. This will certainly be one of the important issues I intend to raise.”

The panel plans to interview former and current Forest Service officials and L.A. County Fire Department administrators, among others.

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?