By Mary O’KEEFE
On Wednesday, the Government of Accountability Office accepted a request for a full investigation of the Station Fire from its beginning on Aug. 26, 2009 to its containment Oct. 16, 2009.
Congressmen Adam Schiff, David Dreier and “Buck” McKeon “lead several of their California colleagues, including Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, and Representatives Brad Sherman and Judy Chu, in making the bipartisan request for the investigation on Aug. 5 after news reports indicated that critical U.S. Forest Service dispatch recordings from the start of the fire, which claimed the lives of two firefighters and resulted in the destruction of numerous homes and structures, were withheld from federal teams that had already conducted reviews of the Station Fire,” according to a press release from Schiff’s office.
“The request [includes] a number of issues,” said Laura Kopelson, GAO spokeswoman.
She said the office normally gathers information and consults with key federal staff members.
Since the fire there have been calls for an investigation on the handling of the Station Fire by officials and local residents. In May Schiff questioned Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell during a hearing on firefighting policy in front of the Committee on Appropriations, subcommittee of Interior. During that questioning he asked Tidwell of the agency’s policy on nighttime flights and the perception that the Forest Service turned away help from other fire fighting agencies with helicopter firefighting capability.
“There is a perception that L.A. County asked for the authorization to do night flights. Forest Service doesn’t have the capacity, L.A. County had the capacity, and L.A. City had the capacity. There is a perception that L.A. 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?” Schiff asked during the hearing.
“Well, Congressman … our Incident Commander requested an L.A. 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,” Tidwell responded.
Again Schiff asked if there was any time the Forest Service vetoed a request by Los Angeles County to employ more nighttime flying capability.
Tidwell said, “Not to my knowledge.”
This exchange happened prior to the discovery of the missing dispatch tapes.
“I was deeply troubled to learn that critical Forest Service dispatch recordings from the start of the fire were withheld from federal review teams,” Schiff said. “This warrants an independent review of the Station Fire Response….This review will help us to better understand the events surrounding the initial response to the Station Fire to improve the response to future fires.”
A public meeting on the Station Fire had been arranged by the Congressmen in August 2010 however due to the fact Congress was called back into session early, the meeting was cancelled.
The Congressmen have agreed to reschedule the meeting in the near future. The GAO is expected to begin its investigation in three months.