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Missed opportunities let Station fire become a disaster

By the time heli-tankers arrived in force, the blaze had leaped Angeles Crest Highway. The last best chance to prevent a catastrophe had vanished.

November 01, 2009|Paul Pringle

On a sizzling August morning, as flames burned unchecked down the road, fire crews milled about at an Angeles Crest Highway ranger station. Others were parked along the pavement -- a critical line of defense -- their engines quiet and hoses slack.

It was more than an hour after first light, and some six hours after U.S. Forest Service commanders had determined that the fire required a more aggressive air attack. But the skies remained empty of water-dropping helicopters -- tankers that were readily available.

Then, after the sun had heated the hillsides above La Canada Flintridge, and as the first chopper finally began unloading on the flames, the fire gathered speed and shot over the highway, turning tall pines into torches. The last best chance to stop the blaze without significant losses vanished.

"That's what turned into the Station fire," said one firefighter who saw the flames jump the road about 8 a.m. on Aug. 27.

Drawn from interviews and records, a picture of the fateful Day 2 of the Station fire raises troubling new questions about the U.S. Forest Service's response to the blaze when it was still small and considered relatively easy to contain.

The conflagration eventually killed two Los Angeles County firefighters, destroyed about 90 dwellings and devastated one of America's most-visited national forests. The largest fire in county history, it was not fully contained until Oct. 16.

The Forest Service should have pounced on the flames as soon as light filled the sky, when the ground was cool and the winds were down, said the firefighter who was at the scene. Like others with knowledge of the operation, he requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

"Air tankers should have been there 30 minutes before sunup," he said. "These folks knew what kind of fire they had going below the road, and they did not staff it with adequate resources. There is no excuse for that."

Although the Forest Service has acknowledged that it learned overnight it had underestimated the threat posed by the fire, witnesses said no helicopter hit the blaze until at least 90 minutes after first light. Two choppers from the city and county of Los Angeles -- crucial reinforcements -- did not reach the fire until 10 a.m., fire officials said. By then, it had multiplied many times in size.

Later in the day, as the blaze raged out of control, commanders rejected recommendations from firefighters for more aircraft, including DC-10s to dump retardant, according to the firefighter who was there. By twilight, the flames would consume about 500 acres.

More precise timeline and deployment information was not available. Forest Service officials declined to be interviewed, citing an internal investigation into the agency's handling of the fire.

"It is premature to draw conclusions as to what could have been done differently to contain the Station fire before completion of the formal review, an in-depth and comprehensive process that has helped our dedicated firefighters to contain more than 98 percent of fires during initial attack," Tom Tidwell, the Washington, D.C.-based chief of the Forest Service, said in an e-mailed statement.

Conditions on the second day were ominous. There was little wind that morning, but temperatures were headed to the 100-degree mark and the chaparral along Angeles Crest Highway was thick and dry; it had not burned in many years.

Forest Service officials and other experts had long warned that any blaze in those lower reaches of the forest, above the foothill communities, could quickly turn into an epic and ruinous fire.

Even so, a Times photographer saw crews standing at the Angeles Crest Ranger Station -- which gave the fire its name -- perhaps in a briefing or awaiting assignment, as the blaze continued to gain momentum. He was there when the crews were deployed later to the spot where the flames leaped over the road.

Some firefighters were pulling on their gear while others hurriedly unrolled hoses, all too late to halt the advance of the blaze, Times photos show. A helicopter is captured in the photos dumping water after 9 a.m.

Once it got away, the fire -- suspected to be arson -- would go on to char 160,577 acres, wipe out homes in Big Tujunga Canyon and turn ancient stands of trees to cinders. The cost of fighting it has been estimated at nearly $100 million, with property losses and recovery expenses yet to be tallied.

The two firefighters were killed on the fifth day, when their truck plunged into a deep canyon.

The Forest Service probe was launched after The Times reported that the agency erred in concluding that the fire presented little danger at the end of the first day and thus scaled back its response.

Three weeks before the fire, the Forest Service issued a memorandum directing its Southern California managers to trim expenses by reducing the use of reinforcements from municipal departments and the state.

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