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Feinstein and Schiff question Forest Service officials on Station fire

May 26, 2010 |  5:00 pm

The head of the U.S. Forest Service told a Senate panel Wednesday that water-dropping helicopters would have been deployed during the critical first night of last summer’s disastrous Station blaze if they had been available and that the agency is considering ending its decades-long ban on using federal firefighting aircraft after dark.

Under pointed questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell also defended the agency’s handling of the fire the next morning, when a heavy air assault did not begin until several hours after daylight. He said aircraft alone would not have stopped the flames from raging out of control.

But Schiff expressed doubt that an earlier air attack on Day 2 would have been ineffective because of steep terrain, as the Forest Service determined in November after an internal review.

 “The conclusion that it would not have helped anyway is a little too facile,” he said.

Feinstein, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that held Wednesday’s hearing, said equipping the Forest Service with night-flying aircraft is a “real priority,” especially in California. She said global warming and enduring droughts have heightened the danger of huge wildfires that threaten neighborhoods.

“Fires are not going to get better, they’re going to get worse,” she said.

Tidwell said the Forest Service is weighing several options for a return to flying during darkness, a tactic it abandoned after a fatal crash in the 1970s. Among them are increased use of night-flying aircraft owned by local agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and assembling a federal fleet of helicopters and possibly air tankers.
Regarding the Station fire, which broke out Aug. 26, Tidwell said, “If we would have had helicopters available that night, we would have used helicopters.”

He said the county department had turned down an informal Forest Service request to assign a night-flying copter to the fire, which eventually blackened 250 square miles and destroyed scores of homes and other structures. But county Chief Deputy John Tripp said in an interview that there is no record of such a request.

Tripp also disputed a Forest Service account that a county chopper left the fight that evening because it was needed for non-fire medical evacuations. He said the copter actually went to the fire after a medical call and left when the Forest Service released all choppers at nightfall.

“They have their facts wrong,” Tripp said.

 Two county firefighters were killed on the fifth day of the blaze.

-- Paul Pringle

Photo: Spencer Weiner / L.A. Times