By Mary O’KEEFE
“We didn’t know that on that day, Aug. 26, this fire would be the largest in Los Angeles County’s history,” said Bat. Chief Mike Brown Wednesday of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Station 82.
One year ago today at 3:30 p.m. the fire that Crescenta Valley residents had been warned about began. The Angeles National Forest was the perfect fire breeding ground thanks to years of drought. By the time the fire was officially contained on Oct. 16, 2009 at 7 p.m. 160,577 acres had burned, numerous structures and homes were destroyed and two L.A. County firefighters had lost their lives.
On Aug. 30 fire Capt. Tedmund “Ted” Hall, 47, and Specialist Arnaldo “Arnie” Quinones, 34, drove off the side of a mountainous road near inmate Camp 16 near Mt. Gleason. The two men were attempting to find a safe route out of the fire for workers and inmates that found themselves trapped by the fire.
“By nature firefighters are paid to do a job that is unthinkable,” Brown said.
He added that firefighters continue to do their job but when they have down time is when they think of those who lost their lives. The department had sent counselors to help those who were having difficulty with the deaths of the two fallen comrades.
“That was a hard time for us,” he said.
On Aug. 30 firefighters throughout the county will take a moment of silence and remember Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones.
The fire had started in a small canyon in the ANF and was thought by several accounts by firefighters easily contained but sometime during the night that changed and therein lies the controversy that has sparked congressional hearings and a call for a federal investigation.
Congressmen Adam Schiff, David Dreier and Buck McKeon lead the call for the Government Accountability Office to perform a full investigation of the Station Fire incident. This was in part due to the recent revelation that U.S. Forest Service dispatch recordings were withheld from earlier federal investigation teams.
“I am not about to pass judgment but I am concerned with the revelation of the recordings,” Dreier said.
Schiff and Dreier said they had received numerous emails, letters and calls from the community asking them to investigate the incident. Those withheld transcripts have yet to be released to the Congress.
In May Schiff interviewed the Forest Chief Tom Tidwell during a Committee on Appropriations, subcommittee hearing with Senator Diane Feinstein. He was able to ask him about the service’s procedures and the timeline of the fire. There was an emphasis on when water dropping airplanes and helicopters were requested. There continues to be a question as to when a request was submitted and if in fact help from other agencies for nighttime flights was turned away.
A meeting that invited the community to weigh in and ask questions of the fire officials along with Dreier and Schiff had been scheduled in early August. That meeting had to be cancelled when the Congress was called back into session.
“We are in the midst of rescheduling for sometime earlier in [September]. I hope when we do we have our panel and transcript of recorded conversations,” Schiff said.
The Congressmen have toured the area both during and after the fire.
“My first impression was that was like a lunar landscape. So ash ridden it was terrible,” Schiff said.
“I remember being with Governor [Arnold Schwarzenegger] at Hanson Dam right after the fire started. Seeing those men and women [firefighters] who came from all over to try to save life and property it was an inspiration,” Dreier said.
The hearings and discussion will continue but firefighters and government officials are looking at this fire as a learning experience as well.
“Among other things we have learned is that Forest Service needs to re-examine [their nighttime flights],” Schiff said.
“There are so many lessons to be learned,” said Capt. Stu Stefaini, Glendale Fire Department.
Stefani was working at fire station 23 during the Station Fire. He was on patrol at night in Glendale filling in for the fire crews that were in Crescenta Valley. He too was surprised the fire took off like it did.
“When I saw the smoke and there was no wind in that respect I didn’t think it was going to be the biggest fire in the County’s history,” he said. “I was surprised though that there wasn’t a lot of equipment.”
He added he had worked in L.A. County and had thought at least by the second day of the fire there would be more equipment out to fight the blaze.
“It was a difficult fire. [The terrain] was very steep and in heavy brush. That area hadn’t burned in years,” Stefani added.
Glendale fire had been preplanning every scenario they could think of prior to the Station Fire. They knew the area well and the dangers. When the fire crested over to Deukmejian Wilderness Park their strike team went into action.
“Glendale is a small entity compared to the [County or Forest Service],” he said.
But that allowed them to create their own strike teams with their specific priorities.
“Our Glendale strike team had their action plan to protect infrastructure of Deukmejian,” he said.
Part of that plan was to protect the oak tree at the top of the first trial at the park. Stefani said they knew what was important to the residents and the city allowed them to deploy teams to protect the area.
Another lesson learned that firefighters knew all along is that fire can start and spread anywhere. That is why Stephanie English from L.A. County Fire along with Brown, and Stefani remind residents to be aware and be prepared.
“The brush is still thick and it is dry,” Stefani said.
Fire departments have been working with residents on abatement in June and July.
Brown said with the heat it is not a good time to do abatement during August however as it cools off residents are invited to call the department if they have any questions about clearing the area around their home.
“Even though we have lost a lot of vegetation in the hills there are still a lot of areas that can burn,” Brown said. “It is extremely important to have fire detectors in your home. They are you first line of defense.”
There is still a lot of dry brush around Crescenta Valley.
“It is not a matter of if but when another fire [can break],” Stefani said.
The firefighters remind residents to be vigilante not only in protecting their homes with abatement and smoke alarms but also with anyone that seems suspicious in the area.
The Station Fire has been determined an arson. The L.A. County Sheriff’s homicide division is investigating the incident and to date do not have not made an arrest.