LA County Supes vote to push changes in US Forest Service firefighting policies

A charred landscape is left in the wake of the 250-square-mile Station Fire as firefighters work to complete the final defensible fireline to contain the massive fire in the San Gabriel Mountains on September 16, 2009 in the Angeles National Forest, northeast of Los Angeles.
A charred landscape is left in the wake of the 250-square-mile Station Fire as firefighters work to complete the final defensible fireline to contain the massive fire in the San Gabriel Mountains on September 16, 2009 in the Angeles National Forest, northeast of Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today urged the U.S. Forest Service to change a number of its fire fighting policies. The Board called on the Forest Service to allow night flying, cede more decision making to on-scene commanders, and require more brush clearing around structures. The recommendations are in an L.A. County Fire Department report, prepared in the wake of the Station Fire, the biggest wildfire in county history.

The Aug. 26 Station Fire, believed to have been set by an arsonist, burned about 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, cost more than $89 million to fight, destroyed 89 residences, 26 commercial properties and 94 outbuildings, and contributed to the deaths of two firefighters.

County fire Chief Michael Freeman ordered a review of firefighting procedures followed during the deadly blaze and delivered a report to the board a week ago

``We must never lose sight of the flammable and volatile nature of wildfire in this region of the country,'' Freeman wrote in a memo accompanying the report. ``There is no doubt that all firefighters and command staff did their very best under the extremely difficult circumstances of this incident.''

A section titled ``What Was Not Done,'' however, appeared to back up critics who said U.S. Forest Service commanders underestimated the fire and failed to have air support on hand for the second day of fire fighting.

``There is no debate that a critical time period existed from initial dispatch on Aug. 26, 2009, until approximately 8 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2009, when the fire crossed the Angeles Crest Highway. What was not used were (county) firefighting helicopters during the hours of darkness on Aug. 26, 2009, until dawn on Aug. 27, 2009.''

Another section, ``County Helicopter-Aircraft Use,'' stated that ``as the fire spilled burning embers from above the Angeles Crest Highway into the arroyo below, spot fires flared up.

``County helicopters could have dropped water as needed throughout the night, attempting to control these spots. Such action was not taken because the USFS policy prohibits night flying. Would night flying have made a difference? No one can say for sure, but night flying is a policy change that is needed.''

The county's report came four days after a U.S. Forest Service review concluded that steep terrain prevented safe deployment of ground crews needed to support any air effort, causing the fire to grow rapidly.

Fires in the Angeles National Forest are fought under policies set by the U.S. Forest Service, and county officials don't have the authority to enforce changes. But the county's report called for a ``paradigm shift in wildland fire suppression'' and outlined the following specific suggestions:

-- mandate brush clearances 200 feet around all structures in and around the forest; current policy mandates 30-foot clearances;

-- develop and apply fire-resistant ground cover around ridge top communication sites such as Mount Wilson;

-- offer incentives for owners of structures on these ridge tops, such as the Mount Wilson Observatory, to ``harden'' them to enhance fire resistance;

-- allow night flying, use of SuperScoopers and all other available equipment and personnel from federal, state and local resources, at the discretion of the incident commander; permission is now required, and night flying is prohibited;

-- and apportion costs to ensure that the best available resources are used.

The board voted 5-0 to send a five-signature letter to Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, outlining the problems faced in fighting the fire and urging the policy changes.

The blaze scorched about 160,577 acres of forest land.

Capt. Tedmund ``Ted'' Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter specialist Arnaldo ``Arnie'' Quinones, 35, of Palmdale, died Aug. 30 when the vehicle they were in went off a road south of Acton plunged some 800 feet into a ravine during the fire.

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