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Forest Service to allow nighttime aerial firefighting in SoCal

August 16, 2012 | 10:27 am

U.S. Forest Service to allow nighttime aerial firefighting in Southern California

In a major policy shift brought on by scrutiny of the disastrous 2009 Station fire, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to begin nighttime helicopter missions to battle blazes in the Angeles National Forest and other federal lands in Southern California, two lawmakers said Thursday.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the Forest Service has agreed to scrap a rule that bars night flying to fight wildfires, a prohibition adopted in the 1970s for safety reasons. Night flights probably will not start until next year because the Forest Service must train and equip firefighters first, according to federal officials.

The reversal in tactics grew out of Times reports and subsequent congressional inquiries into the Forest Service's initial response to the deadly Station fire, the largest in Los Angeles County history. Citing records and interviews, The Times reported that the Forest Service misjudged the threat posed by the fire the first day, rolled back its attack that night and did not follow through on a commander's orders for a heavy air assault early the next morning.

Schiff, Feinstein and other legislators later called for a probe by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. They also demanded a review of the night-flight ban. In a report last December, the GAO concluded that the Forest Service both failed to use all the aircraft that might have been available early in the Station fire and needed to develop a strategy for when night missions should be flown.

"We will never know with certainty if night flying could have extinguished the Station fire in those critical first hours, but I’m glad we will have a better chance in the future,” Schiff, the most vocal advocate of after-dark missions, said in a statement Thursday.

“With temperatures hitting triple digits this summer, it's hard for California residents not to worry that another fire could sweep through and devastate our region once again," he said. "This step today by the Forest Service [will] provide an important new line of defense.”

Feinstein said in a statement that the Forest Service’s decision was “a long overdue, but a welcome policy change.… Attacking fires from the air at night can bolster firefighting efforts because temperatures are cooler, humidity is higher and Santa Ana winds die down.”

The Station blaze blackened 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, destroyed more than 200 structures and killed two Los Angeles County firefighters, who died trying to defend their mountain camp on the fifth day of the conflagration. The suspected arson fire burned for about two months and its scars still mar huge swaths of the forest. The arson case remains unsolved.


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Photo: A water-dropping helicopter makes a pass over the Station fire in August 2009. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times