By Mary O’KEEFE
Representative Adam Schiff recently testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies to call for a reconsideration and possible repeal of U.S. Forest Service policies prohibiting nighttime flights. This action was spurred by the Station Fire.
“Fire officials agree that the most important part of fighting fires is often the initial attack, which if successful, keeps fires smaller, cheaper and much safer for residents and firefighters,” Schiff said in his opening testimony.
“One night-flying helicopter, owned by L.A County Fire Department, was dispatched to the fire but was quickly diverted to perform its other responsibility – medical evacuation,” he said. “During the night several hot spots developed.”
He suggested that more be done to equip the Forest Service with the capability to fly helicopters at night.
In addition to Schiff’s testimony Chief Tom Tidwell of the U.S. Forest Service testified.
Tidwell confirmed that Helicopter 14 was needed for a medical mission.
Since the Station Fire there have been concerns voiced officially and unofficially about the exact protocol the Forest Service employs in regard to night flying helicopters. Schiff questioned Tidwell on this subject.
“There is a perception that L.A. County asked for permission to do night flights, and they were turned down by the Forest Service,” Schiff said.
“Well Congressman, based on that our Incident Command requested an L.A. County helicopter to do night flight operations,” answered Tidwell. “It’s my understanding that if a helicopter was available we would have received it because we asked for it. And so if there were ships available, ships that had pilots that hadn’t timed out, that were available, we wanted to use helicopters that night on that fire, based on what our Incident Command ordered.”
Schiff further pressed Tidwell.
“So to your knowledge there was never a time when the Forest Service in effect vetoed a request by the County to employ more nighttime flying capability?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Tidwell replied. “I’ve had many hours of discussion with many of our fire personnel on this situation so that we can make sure we can learn as much as we possibly can and apply that learning. So, if that occurred, I’m not aware of it.”
Schiff said he was pleased with the hearings but plans on organizing a congressional panel to look further into the incident.
The complete transcript of the testimony by Chief Tidwell follows:
Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior
Hearing on Firefighting Policy
Questions from Congressman Schiff
May 26, 2010
Congressman Schiff: Senator, thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.
Chairwoman Feinstein: It’s the largesse of the Senate.
Congressman Schiff: It is, it is. And, I promise you I won’t get too used to it while I’m sitting here. Chief Tidwell, thank you for your testimony. I just wanted to follow up with a couple questions.
You mentioned earlier that there had been requests for an LA Country Firefighter, a night-flying helicopter that had come early in the evening but had then been diverted for medical evacuations. Can you tell us a little bit more? I think you referenced some additional conversation about whether there were other night-flying vehicles available. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? And, I’d also like to ask you – I understand you’re relooking at the policy against having the capacity within the forest service to do night time flights. Had you had the capacity during those early hours of the station fire, had the forest service had nighttime-capable helicopters, would you have utilized them? So, if you could tell us both about the conversations that were had about additional resources that may or may not have been available, as well as if the forest service possessed the capability, would they have utilized it?
Tom Tidwell: Well, Congressman, thank you for the question. The following Helicopter 14 needed to return to the emergency medical mission – it was my understanding that there was dialogue between Incident Commander and fire personnel from LA County about the availability of other helicopters that had the night-flying capability. It wasn’t documented, it wasn’t any additional orders, it’s one of the things that, from my own personal experience, goes on during fires when you’re sitting there talking about the situation that you have. One of the lessons that we learned and one of that changes that our force supervisor, Danny DeAngeles, has made, is that to ensure that we use clear text when we are making our orders and that we do not do any informal ordering and that we follow our formal process that when need resources that we order that from our dispatch center, so that in the future when these questions arise there isn’t any misunderstandings of what did or what did not occur because we will have that record. And it’s one of the lessons that we learned that we need to do a better job to follow our processes and make sure all of our orderings are through our formal process so that we have a track record there and there is response back and if the resources aren’t available then the Incident Commander is told that from dispatch instead of the informal discussions that occur on a fire.
Congressman Schiff: Chief if I could just interject. There is a perception, and I want to ask you about the informal discussions a little further, but there is a perception that LA County asked for the authorization to do night flights. Forest Service doesn’t have the capacity, LA County had the capacity, LA City had the capacity. There is a perception that LA County asked for permission to do night flights, and they were turned down by the Forest Service. Is that an accurate perception or is that a misunderstanding of what took place?
Tom Tidwell: Well Congressman, based on that our Incident Commander requested an LA county helicopter to do night flight operations, it’s my understanding that if a helicopter was available we would have received it because we asked for it. And so if there were ships available, ships that had pilots that hadn’t timed out, that were available, we wanted to use helicopters that night on that fire, based on what our Incident Commander ordered.
Congressman Schiff: So, to your knowledge there was never a time when the Forest Service in effect vetoed a request by the County to employ more nighttime flying capability.
Tidwell: Not to my knowledge or anything that I’ve heard, and I’ve had many hours of discussion with many of our fire personnel on this situation so that we can make sure we can learn as much as we possibly can and apply that learning. So, if that occurred, I’m not aware of it.
Congressman Schiff: Now, I take it from your comment that you requested the nighttime helicopter and it was diverted that the answer to my second question, if you had the capacity yourself in the Forest Service, would you have utilized it, I assume the answer is yes.
Tidwell: Yes, based on our Incident Commander requesting that resource for night operations, if we would have had the capability on that night and we had a ship, a helicopter available, that yes, we would have been using it that evening.
Congressman Schiff: Madame Chair, you’ve been very indulgent. Do you mind if I ask one last question?
Chairman Feinstein: Go ahead.
Congressman Schiff: The conclusion in the review that was undertaken, that essentially you can’t conclude it would have made a difference if you had used nighttime craft, is that at odds with the statement you’ve made that if you’d had the resources you would have used them? Can you explain a little bit of whether there’s a contradiction there, or whether you’re saying, had you had the resources you would have used them, but it’s impossible to say what the ultimate impact would have been?
Tidwell: If we would have had helicopters available that night, we would have used helicopters to drop water on that evening. The conclusion of the review team, when they looked at the resources – the assets that were used during that fire, when they looked at the amount of fire that occurred below that road from the spotting, the review team came to the conclusion that without access by firefighters on the ground, just the use of aerial resources, aircraft alone, would not have allowed us to prevent all the spotting that occurred. And that was the conclusion of the review team, when they looked at the amount of fire that occurred below that road and the amount of spotting that occurred, is that they came to that conclusion that the aircraft alone would not have been enough. It’s essential that, for us to suppress fires, that we are able to have access with our ground firefighters, in conjunction with our aerial resources, so by working together we can successfully suppress these fires. The problem with the Station Fire was because of the one spot fire that was above the road that they wanted to use the helicopter on, they made the determination, they had to make the difficult call that night that they could not safely put fire fighters on that. They did try to do a burnout operation to see if they could get some fire started to create a larger safety area to be able to get in there and work that. They were unable to do that. That was the spot then that created the spot fires down below the road. And that was what the review team concluded, is based on the amount of fire that occurred below the road, that based on what they know, what they could see, the information they had available, they determined that even with those resources, we would not have been able to suppress that. It’s not 100 percent. This business isn’t 100 percent, and that’s why we are willing to… not willing, that we try to use all the resources that are available and that our folks I think do a tremendous job to do everything that they can to suppress these fires. And that’s why they wanted to use the helicopter that night, to continue to try to work on that. At that time, in the evening, they anticipated some spot fires to occur, but as you look at the logs and that it was right after midnight the spotting started to occur, and that’s when they put in the additional orders, and so the mount of spotting, I think, even exceeded what they originally thought they’d be dealing with the evening before.
Schiff: Chief, I know some of the retired Forest Service personnel have taken a different view of the subject, and we’ll have a chance to explore that further in Los Angeles in the near future. But, Madame Chair, I want to thank you for the opportunity, and I know it’s a rare opportunity, to ask questions here.