November 20, 2014

Station Fire Panel Hearing

 

On October 12, 2010, Courtroom Three at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Pasadena was the scene of a panel hearing on the Station Fire that began August 27, 2009, and wasn’t contained until October 16, 2009. It was the worst wildfire in Los Angeles County history. Two Los Angeles County firefighters died, 160,000 acres burned and more than 200 structures were destroyed. Costs for the Station Fire were more than $99 million.

Five members of the House of Representatives lead by Rep. Adam Schiff heard from current and former Forest Service employees, L. A. County Fire Department officials, wildfire experts and County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Many families whose homes were burned to the ground by the wildfire’s fury attended the hearing. TV camera crews taped the proceedings as House members heard from two panels.

William Derr, retired USDA Forest Service Special Agent in Charge of the Law Enforcement and Investigative program in California for 18 years, said his remarks represented “the opinions of Forest Service retirees with extensive experience and expertise in wildland fire management and leadership.” He identified “factors which may have led to the escape of the Station Fire and opportunities for improved future responses by the Forest Service.”

The Martin Mars, a 7,200-gallon air tanker, under an Exclusive Use Contract to the Forest Service, Derr said, “was only 26 minutes flying time from the Station Fire and was not deployed to knock down the wildfire on the first day.”

Derr provided a comprehensive overview of the lack of aerial firefighting forces that should have been dispatched to the Station Fire’s location, then asked, “Why wasn’t Incident Commander Will Spyrison’s requests for three air tankers and one helitanker filled?” (Spyrison requested they be on the fire by 7 a.m.)

Derr informed U.S. House members Rep. Judy Chu, Rep. Howard McKeon, Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Brad Sherman and Rep. David Drier that the Martin Mars was used only two days out of 52 between August 26 and October 16 when the Station Fire was contained.

Members of the House panel questioning Spyrison, retired Division Chief of the Angeles National Forest, learned that the “window of opportunity” was lost when the order for aircraft was not made.

Rep. Brad Sherman relentlessly questioned Tom Harbour, Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation Management, about the procedure for ordering firefighting aircraft and was not satisfied with the information he received.

Jody Noiron, Forest Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest during the Station Fire, was questioned about a memo issued by Forest Service management before the fire advising forest managers to be careful about expenditures. She denyed that the Forest Service attempted to save money fighting the fire.

Supervisor Antonovich said he had “never witnessed some of the operational failures that we experienced during the Sation Fire,” and added that the “cost of the Station Fire may reach one billion dollars over the next five years when the value of property, flood damage, response and recovery and potential lawsuits are calculated.”

Bob Cavage, president of Wildfire Research Network reported that 11,000 structures (mostly homes) have been lost to runaway wildfires in California alone in the last decade. The losses, he said are due to an increase in “mega” fires like the Station Fire that escaped initial attack.

On the first day, Cavage said, the Station Fire moved only one-third of a mile in four hours. The 12,000 gallon DC-10 and the 7,200-gallon Martin Mars Very Large Tankers were available and on call. These aircraft could have made drops on the fire within one hour or less from the first fire alert.

Additionally, he added, Incident Commanders should be provided with real-time, direct-view, 360-degree fire information in the shortest possible time. A specialized helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft should be based at the closest aircraft base to high-risk ignition areas. Views of the fire can also be sent real-time by Internet to high-ranking Air Advisors.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is now investigating the Station Fire and is expected to issue a report in six to eight months.