14 Nov 2009, 9:56am
The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Station Fire Review

Last summer the Station Fire [here] burned 160,600 acres, destroyed 90 homes, killed two Los Angeles County firefighters, and devastated the Angeles National Forest. The largest fire in LA County history, the Station Fire cost nearly $100 million in suppression expenses alone and inflicted economic damages of 10 to 50 times that amount.

In November the LA Times printed a story blaming an alleged delay (of a few hours) in aerial attack for the catastrophe:

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.

By Paul Pringle, LA Times, November 1, 2009 [here]

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 Cañada 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. …

The LAT story is odious yellow journalism, especially considering that a year ago they published a long screed condemning the use of aerial firefighting tools (a story for which they won some sort of journalism booby prize):

Air tanker drops in wildfires are often just for show

By Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers, July 29, 2008 [here]

The bulky aircraft are reassuring sights to those in harm’s way, but their use can be a needless and expensive exercise to appease politicians. Fire officials call them ‘CNN drops.’ …

It is fascinating (like watching a train wreck) that those who would ground the aircraft and ban fire retardant are the first to whine when the aerial drops on a fire in their neighborhood are an hour late (according to their expectations).

Bill Gabbert of Wildfire Today reported on an after-action review by a panel of fire experts who determined that appropriate suppression decisions were made, despite charges to the contrary by the dripping-with-hypocrisy LA Times:

USFS report says steep slopes and fuel conditions inhibited initial attack of Station fire

by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today, November 13, 2009 [here]

After a review of the first 46 hours of the management of the Station fire, a five-person panel concluded that the appropriate decisions were made on the fire which eventually burned 160,000 acres on the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles.

The panel was comprised of two representatives of the U. S. Forest Service, one from L.A. County Fire Department, one from CalFire, and a person from private industry that specializes in decision making.

A quick review of the report which was released on November 13, 2009, found no criticism of the U.S. Forest Service or L.A. County Fire Department.

One issue that appeared in the media was that the number of ground and air resources assigned to the fire on the second day was not adequate, and this contributed to the fire becoming the largest in the recorded history of LA County.

But the report says:

“Additional resources during the evening of August 26 [the day the fire started] and morning of August 27 would not have improved the effectiveness of operations during that operational period and would have resulted in needless exposure of firefighters to the hazards of wildland fire.”

It goes on to say that the extremely steep terrain and the dense, dry vegetation made it difficult or at times impossible to safely take direct suppression action on some portions of the fire.

“On the evening of August 26, spot fires occurred below the Angeles Crest Highway, near the point of fire origin, and were not accessible by firefighters due to excessively steep terrain, limited visibility, and decadent, thick brush. Aircraft use, without subsequent engagement of ground forces, would have been ineffective. …”

I concur with the panel. Second-guessing the first responders is unfair. There are always lessons to be learned, and certainly the Station Fire merits thorough after-action investigation. That is quite different than a rush by the Media to assign personal negligence to firefighters based on very flimsy evidence.

The decision space for fire management has indeed been muddled, and that is a serious problem, but much of this fire’s outcome was foreordained by the lack of fuels management over decades across that high-risk landscape. Those decisions — that allowed the fuels to build up — are the ones that should be investigated.

It is disingenuous to the max for the LA Times to blame first responders for a fire that had been festering for years on the hills above the journalists’ homes. While the untreated fuels built up year after year, the LA Times sneered at fuels management, forest stewardship, and aerial firefighting. They editorialized (directly and indirectly) in favor of do-nothing un-management of national forests across the USA, with particular haughty superciliousness about hazard reduction on fire-prone forests in their own backyards.

Then, when a predictable holocaust erupted (again, for the umpteenth time in SoCal), the LA Times is suddenly pointing their bony finger at everybody and anybody other than themselves.

Here’s a thought: why don’t they return the booby prize they won for decrying aerial firefighting last year? Or are they expecting another one for their flip-flop journalism?

The real tragedy of the Station Fire is that is did not burn up the homes and offices of the LA Times and their employees. That kind of object lesson would hit home (in more ways than one).

Perhaps in the future (don’t hold your breath) the LA Times might be supportive of efforts to steward our national forests so that they do not erupt into megafires that devastate built and unbuilt environments.

That would be some useful journalism and possibly worthy of a prize or two.

14 Nov 2009, 7:41pm
by Larry H.

Just looking at the pictures of the fire area and the fireline overlayed on it, you can tell that it would be crazy to be caught in that steep, brushy terrain with active fire burning beneath you. Some fires absolutely HAVE to be fought indirectly. However, all too often, “firefighter safety” is an excuse to not fight the fire. Then they become;

FUSES…Fires Used for Senseless Ecological Sabotage

15 Nov 2009, 11:42pm

Nice that you live in a vacuum. I was there, I have photos, I was at the fire, in that turnout, at 7:30 that night. You could have put that fire out at dawn the next day with the two AirCranes that were stationed less than a 10 minute flight away. Why weren’t they in the air? ‘Cause no one asked them. They were up early, just hoping to be called. USFS started calling at 10 am, it gets light at 5:30, and by noon it was lost.

Then they could have stopped it again as it turned east. They let it burn, I have photos as it jumped the highway in front of 10 ANF engines. Nobody moved, not one hose line was even charged, they wanted it all to burn, and they got their wish.

I have lost all respect for USFS. They even ORDERED two LA City fire birds out of the area, when they arrived to help.

16 Nov 2009, 12:20am
by Mike

Dear G,

Thank you for your on-site observations. I have no reason to doubt you. My point was that the hazard was accumulating there for years waiting to explode. The Angeles NF and the adjacent communities were all remiss in failing to treat the hazard before the fire.

The Station Fire after action report is [here] (3.6MB, lots of pics). Now that I have read it, I agree that the report is inadequate in many respects.

16 Nov 2009, 1:49pm
by Larry Harrell

1) No one is going to put firefighters in front of an active wildfire like that one. The terrain and fuels were extreme.

2) Just what would they accomplish by risking the lives of firefighters? The pics I saw showed that between the fire and the ridgetop was more steep brush. I’m sure the plan was to use the ridgetop to contain the fire, leaving no unburned fuels between the ridgetop and the highway.

3) Conditions in the morning could have been active and there is not a lot of sense in getting above the fire, as fire intensity increases.

4) The Forest Service in the LA Basin is clearly the “Rookie Leagues” for firefighters. The good ones move on from those low paying Federal jobs to cushy State, City and County positions. It’s a revolving door on the Forest Service positions.

5) Personal liability issues for those fire bosses in charge cause a lot more analysis and paralysis in deciding just how to deal with these firestorms. We’ve seen rash decisions made and the lands and people have suffered for it.

6) Like Mike said, those lands were destined to be burned at high intensity in the next geologic nano-second, anyway. Especially when you install the human factor, where in the LA Basin, that factor is very, very high.



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