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Report inconclusive on whether Station fire could've been contained

December 16, 2011 |  1:04 pm

Station fire 2009
A federal inquiry has concluded the U.S. Forest Service did not make use of all aircraft that might have been available during the critical early hours of the 2009 Station fire, but the findings left unanswered whether a more aggressive assault from the sky could have contained the blaze.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also says the Forest Service needs to clarify its policies on using aircraft and ground crews from other agencies to combat large fires.

The GAO launched its inquiry a year ago at the request of several members of Congress.

That followed a series of Times' reports showing the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the 15-acre fire at the end of the first day, rolled back its ground forces and failed to fill its commanders’ order for a heavy air attack at 7 the next morning.

The air tankers did not arrive at the Angeles National Forest until about two hours later on Aug. 27. By then, the fire had leaped a defense line on Angeles Crest Highway and began to rage out of control.

It burned until mid-October, blackening 250 square miles of the forest, destroying more than 200 homes and other structures and killing two county firefighters, who died trying to defend their Mt. Gleason camp.

Forest Service officials have insisted they staged the Day 2 air assault as soon as possible but had been hampered by a lack of available federal tankers with rested pilots. The GAO confirmed the federal planes probably could not have reached the fire any earlier, although it said the Forest Service could have ordered state air tankers, as The Times has reported.

The agency’s conclusions say a state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) official “estimated that if the tankers had been requested, they might have been able to arrive at the Station Fire at approximately 7:00 a.m., but he told us that because the request was never made, he does not know whether the air tankers would or would not have been available.”

According to the GAO findings, Forest Service officials said they believed that CalFire would not have released the tankers because they might have been needed for any new blazes that broke out.

In addition, the GAO noted that, on the first evening of the fire, the Forest Service did not make use of a large Martin Mars tanker that was nearby. The GAO findings say there were conflicting accounts of why the plane was not deployed.

In its conclusions, the agency said it could not be determined whether different air or ground tactics would have halted the fire, which eventually became the largest in Los Angeles County history.

“It is not possible to know with certainty whether different decisions or actions would have resulted in a different outcome for the Station Fire,” the GAO said.

In a statement, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), said the GAO findings underscore the need for the Forest Service to improve its measures for quickly ordering aircraft and ground crews, including from state and local agencies.

“It also brings up questions as to whether or not certain tactics could have helped firefighters suppress the fire and protect homes, despite the overwhelming challenges posed by the intensity of the fire and steep terrain,” Sherman said.


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Photo: A group of men watch the Station fire in 2009 from a hill overlooking Tujunga. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times