Forest Service investigates withholding of key Station fire information
The U.S. Forest Service has launched an inspector general’s investigation and invited Congress to order a broad inquiry into last summer’s disastrous Station fire, after the recent discovery that dispatch recordings from the critical early hours of the blaze were withheld from The Times and a federal review team.
The inspector general’s probe will focus on why several days worth of recordings were not provided to The Times under the Freedom of Information Act or turned over to a Forest Service inquiry that had concluded the agency’s initial attack on the fire had been proper.
"I find this very serious,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told The Times on Tuesday. “I’m very concerned and troubled that this was not found earlier....We want to get this information to learn what occurred on the Station fire."
Tidwell said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack invited Congress to request the fuller investigation of the Forest Service’s handling of the Station fire, a probe that would be conducted by the Government Accountability Office.
The content of the withheld recordings is not known. Tidwell said officials were still transcribing them and the results would be released in coming days.
He said the recordings were found after he ordered a reexamination of the agency’s response to The Times’ requests for copies of audio dispatch communications.
The news organization had also raised questions about an erroneous entry in one key transcript, which Forest Service officials blamed on a private contractor.
Tidwell said he had wanted the reexamination completed before a local hearing on the Station fire next Tuesday by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). Schiff scheduled the hearing after The Times reported that the Forest Service had misjudged the threat posed by the fire, scaled back the initial attack and failed to fill crucial orders for air tankers on the second morning.
The Station blaze, which broke out Aug. 26, blackened 250 square miles of the forest, destroyed scores of homes and other structures, and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters. It was the largest fire in county history.
In a statement today, Schiff said he was “concerned with the late discovery of these recorded conversations by the Forest Service, and the fact that these calls appear to have been recorded without the knowledge or consent of some or all of the parties to these calls.
“I hope the Inspector General investigation will get to the bottom of how this recording system was established, for what purpose and under what authorization, as well as whether any laws were violated by it,” the statement said.
A Forest Service spokesman said the inspector general’s office could recommend criminal charges based on what the investigation finds.
No Forest Service employee has been fired or placed on leave since the recordings were unearthed, Tidwell said.
He also said he was not aware of the recordings when he told a Senate committee last spring that the Forest Service had deployed the earliest available air tankers to the fire on the second morning, when the blaze was still just a few acres in size.
According to federal records and state officials, other tankers were available earlier, but the Forest Service failed to complete an order for them.
-- Paul Pringle
Photo: Associated Press