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Cost concerns weakened Forest Service's assault on Station fire, study says

Agriculture Department's review cites a letter before the blaze instructing fire managers to limit requests for crews, aircraft and equipment from state and local agencies.

October 11, 2010|By Paul Pringle | Los Angeles Times

The document does not say whether the money anxieties caused aircraft to be delayed. The Times has reported that the Forest Service failed to fill its own commander's order for air tankers and helicopters to begin hitting the flames at 7 a.m. on the second day, when the blaze was still small. The three heavy tankers did not reach the fire until about two hours later, after it had jumped the key defense line of Angeles Crest Highway and started raging out of control.

Forest Service officials have said they did everything they could to get aircraft to the scene as soon as possible. But CalFire has said it had tankers available that were not ordered. The Forest Service also did not deploy a 7,200-gallon Martin Mars "water bomber" to the fire on the second day, even though the plane was under federal lease.

The Agriculture Department study, which was prepared by an outside contractor for eventual submission to Congress, analyzed the costs incurred in six fires last year, the Station conflagration being by far the biggest. Completed in August, the review is mostly favorable about the Forest Service's overall performance on the Station fire, in part because it relied on a study the agency conducted on itself last November.

But the new review did not explore in detail the tardy arrival of aircraft on Day 2 or Times reports that the Forest Service underestimated the threat posed by the blaze and scaled back its attack, including on the ground, at the end of the first day. It declared those matters to be beyond its scope and deferred to the Government Accountability Office investigation.

The study says that the Forest Service, in order to protect homes in areas such as La Canada Flintridge as well as the installations on Mt. Wilson, "pursued a major objective of allowing the fire to move up into the forest and wilderness areas ... primarily employing an indirect strategy." It says this approach helped save more than $1 billion worth of property.

Former Forest Service officials agree that the neighborhoods and Mt. Wilson were priorities but say the agency could have defended them while simultaneously confronting the fire in the forest interior -- before the blaze became too big to safely tackle.

"They could have accomplished both objectives," said William Derr, a former Forest Service investigator for California. "They used half-measures and they only got half-results."

Troy Kurth, the agency's former fire prevention officer for California, said crews could have taken a stand higher on Angeles Crest Highway to keep the blaze from exploding into the backcountry.

Instead, "they let it burn one of the most valuable watersheds in the world," he said.

Harbour, of the Forest Service, dismissed that as second-guessing. "We've got the best, the highest-qualified command folks looking at the fire [and] prioritizing actions and assets," he said.

Meanwhile, the review said Station fire commanders sometimes faced political and public pressures to order DC-10s and 747s to drop retardant, even if they didn't believe the jumbo jets would be effective. But the study also found that DC-10s, while expensive to deploy and less nimble than smaller planes and helicopters, saved up to $8 million in potential costs.

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

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