By Mary O’KEEFE
At a standing room only meeting on Tuesday Congressman Adam Schiff led a congressional panel into an inquiry of how the Station Fire was battled especially in those crucial early hours of Aug. 26.
The meeting had been scheduled months earlier but was postponed when Congress was called back into an emergency session. Tuesday’s discussion covered several aspects of the response by U.S. Forest Service.
Representatives David Dreier, Brad Sherman, Buck McKeon and Judy Chu noted their respect and appreciation for the U.S. Forest Service firefighters but were consistent and insistent when it came to questioning Forest Service officials.
The main focus at the start of the meeting was the delay in the arrival of water dropping aircraft. It became apparent through the questioning that there was a break down in communication between the dispatch and the Southern California Operations, a command center that sends the available planes.
The Incident Commander at the beginning of the fire was [now retired] Division Chief Will Spyrison.
The commander had requested aircraft about midnight on Aug. 27 for arrival by 7 a.m.
“I knew if I didn’t have the aircraft by seven in the morning, between seven and nine was the window of opportunity that would make a difference,” Spyrison said.
“So you think if you had gotten the aircraft there by seven in the morning it would have made a difference and [the fire would not have gotten out of control]?,” asked Schiff.
“Yes. If it was possible to have them there at seven,” Spyrison said, then added, “You can play the what if game … it is hard to say. In my career I have not seen aircraft at seven in the morning but there was that sense of urgency.”
That is where some murkiness began, as Spyrison seemed to back down from his statement concerning the advantage of the 7 a.m. flight. There was some discussion with retired Forest Service firefighters as to whether aircraft had in the past been available in the early morning hours. The retired firefighters had seen planes that early in the morning in the Angeles National Forest.
The question soon became what did Dispatch do with the request. According to Spyrison and Jody Norton, forest supervisor, the dispatcher was told to hold onto that request.
Several Representatives questioned Norton and Spyrison on why that request would be held but there did not seem to be a clear answer.
Schiff asked if it was due to the fact the Forest Service wanted their aircraft, not from another agency. This has been a concern by several of the Representatives’ constitutes.
“I can tell you as honest as I am sitting her today. If those aircraft were available from another agency we would have used them,” Norton said.
But the question remained why wasn’t the order forwarded. Why was the dispatcher told to hold onto the order? And who told that dispatcher to hold?
“That is what we are looking into,” said Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service.
The audience, many had lost their homes in the Station Fire moaned at his answer.
At the request of Schiff, Dreier and McKeon the Government Accountability Office has agreed to conduct an investigation into the Station Fire.
All representatives of the Forest Service said they welcomed the investigation.