A helicopter drops water over the Station fire in August 2009. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
The U.S. Forest Service said Thursday it has scrapped a rule that bars night flying to fight wildfires and plans to start nighttime helicopter missions next year to battle blazes in the Angeles National Forest and other federal lands in Southern California.
“We have made this important decision very carefully,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a statement. “We have studied night operations from every angle — risk management, business and operations — and we have concluded we can conduct night operations safely and effectively.”
The new policy, brought on by scrutiny of the disastrous 2009 Station fire, reverses a prohibition on night flying adopted in the 1970s for safety reasons. The change grew out of Times reports and subsequent congressional inquiries into the Forest Service's initial response to the deadly Station fire, the largest in Los Angeles County history.
Citing records and interviews, The Times reported that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the fire the first day, rolled back its attack that night and did not follow through on a commander's orders for a heavy air assault early the next morning.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) later called for a probe by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
They also demanded a review of the night-flight ban. In a report last December, the GAO concluded that the Forest Service both failed to use all the aircraft that might have been available early in the Station fire and needed to develop a strategy for when night missions should be flown.
“We will never know with certainty if night flying could have extinguished the Station fire in those critical first hours, but I’m glad we will have a better chance in the future,” Schiff, the most vocal advocate of after-dark missions, said in a statement Thursday.
“With temperatures hitting triple digits this summer, it's hard for California residents not to worry that another fire could sweep through and devastate our region once again," he said. "This step today by the Forest Service [will] provide an important new line of defense.”
Feinstein said in a statement that the Forest Service’s decision was “long overdue, but a welcome policy change. … Attacking fires from the air at night can bolster firefighting efforts because temperatures are cooler, humidity is higher and Santa Ana winds die down.”
The Station blaze blackened 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, destroyed more than 200 structures and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters, who died trying to defend their mountain camp on the fifth day of the conflagration.
The suspected arson fire burned for about two months and its scars still mar huge swaths of the forest. The arson case remains unsolved.