Firefighter haunted by decision to defend camp during fatal Station Fire

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File photo of a burning stump in the San Gabriel Mountains on September 16, 2009 in the Angeles National Forest, northeast of Los Angeles, Calif.

A firefighter said he will always be haunted by the decision to defend a camp during the massive Station wildfire that killed two firefighters, it was reported today.

A U.S. Forest Service e-mail obtained by the Los Angeles Times refers to the loss of "two people who stayed too long.'' Along with other records, it suggests the crew at the fire camp were not formally assigned to the Station Fire operation and had limited contact with the fire command center.

Forest Service officials are already facing criticism for their decision to withhold water-dropping aircraft Aug. 27, during the critical second day of the blaze.

The command logs show no calls to evacuate the camp on Mount Gleason where the firefighters were based, or to send help as flames raced toward it, the Times reported.

The fire became the largest in Los Angeles County history, burning about 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, costing more than $89 million to fight, destroying 89 residences, 26 commercial properties and 94 outbuildings. It also contributed to the deaths of two firefighters — Capt.
Tedmund Hall and Spc. Arnaldo Quinones.

The county reports and witnesses indicate that Hall, the camp superintendent, and Quinones, a crew foreman, had tried to slow the advance of the flames with a backfire, jumping in a truck and taking a dirt road to a spot just below the camp. They were about to return when their radio fell silent,
the newspaper reported.

"It was an oversight, I'm guessing, in the county command system ... They either forgot about them, or the people who were calling the shots for the county were oblivious about what could happen to them,'' Don Feser, former fire chief of the Angeles National Forest, told the Times.

County Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp told the newspaper he did not believe the camp had been overlooked by the commanders. But when asked if it had been too risky for firefighters to stay at the camp, he deferred to an inquiry by Los Angeles County officials and the state Department of Forestry
and Fire Protection into the deaths.

As the fire overtook the camp, crew members hid in the dining hall and then huddled in trucks, engines and some hand-held shelters, the Times reported.

"We had a small slice of the pie that we could see,'' the firefighter, who was not identified by the Times, told the newspaper. "We couldn't see what was happening five miles this way, five miles that way. Ted Hall took off three or four times in his pickup truck just to keep an eye on the fire activity.''

The firefighter who was at the scene said the last sounds he heard from Hall and Quinones was not their voices, but the echo of a flare pistol they used to ignite chaparral to rob the skyscraper-tall flames of fuel. Just after, the blaze overtook the camp.

"It really hit from all four sides,'' the firefighter told the newspaper.

He recounted a frantic and treacherous search for Hall and Quinones, with several crew members suffering burns to their feet, eye injuries and smoke inhalation. They spotted the truck at the bottom of a canyon -- it had plunged 800 feet down a ravine.

"The truck was upside down, with one body outside,'' said the firefighter. "The truck was on fire. Everything was. It was like a tidal wave of fire.''

The firefighter told the Times he would always be haunted by the decision to defend Camp 16. "Was it worth it? No,'' he said. "I don't know of anyone on my crew who would disagree with that.''

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