Investigators study the truck that carried two firefighters from Fire… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
As walls of flame from the massive Station blaze closed in on their remote compound, the mission of the crews at Fire Camp 16 suddenly changed from protecting their corner of the Angeles National Forest to saving their own lives.
Two Los Angeles County firefighters approached the front line of the blaze in a heroic attempt to stop its march toward the camp high in the San Gabriel Mountains and were killed as the flames engulfed the landscape, officials say.
Now, four months after Capt. Tedmund Hall and Spc. Arnaldo Quinones became the only fatalities of the fire, new details of the tragedy have emerged, along with unsettling questions of how and why the crews were allowed to stay in harm's way, and whether commanders had failed to grasp in time the danger the camp faced.
"You hate to second-guess yourself, but if we could have known what would happen, we would not have been up there," said one Camp 16 firefighter, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. "We're not the Marine Corps. It's not like we're going to stay until the death."
A U.S. Forest Service e-mail written shortly after the deaths addresses the hazards of the fire and refers to the loss of "two people who stayed too long." The e-mail was obtained by The Times along with other records that show that the camp crews were not formally assigned to the Station operation and thus might have been excluded from the commanders' broader strategy of defending critical structures in the forest while ensuring the safety of firefighters. The battle against the fire was managed jointly by the county and the U.S. Forest Service.
The unusual disconnect between the camp and those leading the attack on the biggest fire in county history is evident in dispatch logs that reveal scant contact between the Mt. Gleason crews and the command center. Experts say that violates long-established firefighting protocols that require all agencies to work together on major blazes in the forest, maintaining good communications with each other and sharing information about fire behavior, weather conditions and escape routes.
The Station fire logs contain no calls to evacuate the camp or any effort to send help as the flames raced toward it. And daily government summaries of the firefight do not list the camp, a cluster of converted military buildings, among the many properties that commanders considered imperiled.
County Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp, the No. 2 executive in the department, said he did not believe that the camp had been an afterthought to the commanders. He also said that his agency had "some communications" with the crews during the firefight. A county review of the response to the Station blaze termed those communications "sporadic."
Asked if it had been too risky for firefighters to stay at the camp, Tripp said, "That I can't talk about yet." He deferred to an inquiry into the deaths by the county and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, whose findings are due to be released in the coming days.
Don Feser, former fire chief of the Angeles National Forest, said it was senseless to have kept crews at the camp, especially because they were waiting for the blaze to reach them rather than actively confronting it.
"It wasn't like there was any engagement going on," he said. "It was an oversight, I'm guessing, in the county command system. . . . They either forgot about them, or the people who were calling shots for the county were oblivious about what could happen to them."
Feser, who retired in 2007 after seven years as chief, said it was a mistake not to include the camp in the wider Station fire fight: "The incident command teams should have been double-checking to make sure that they didn't have anybody out there, that everybody's been evacuated."
A preliminary county report and interviews show the crews had abandoned any hope of taking a stand against the fast-moving fire on that fateful Sunday morning, Aug. 30, and instead scrambled for cover in a dining hall and their vehicles.
"It got to the point where there was no oxygen to breathe," said the firefighter who was at the camp.
At 4:15 p.m., "fire conditions around the camp began to deteriorate very rapidly," the report states. At 5:15, it says, "an accounting of all personnel began, and it was determined that two personnel were missing." At 5:41, this chilling entry appears in Forest Service dispatch logs: "Camp 16 has been burned over."
As the flames roared up through the camp, exploding through the treetops, the crew members sought refuge in the dining hall, then were marshaled outside as the fire surrounded the building; they huddled in trucks and engines, and some unfolded hand-held shelters, according to witnesses and records. "We thought we were going to die," said the firefighter who was on Mt. Gleason.