By Mary O’KEEFE
The Government Accountability Office has released its report on the Station Fire. What they found and subsequently recommended came down to organization, planning and documentation.
“To improve the Forest Service’s response to wild land fires, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to clarify the Forest Service’s intent and to reduce uncertainty about how its assets are to be used relative to those of other agencies, issue guidance describing when it expects its own firefighting assets to be used instead of contract or state and local agency assets,” is the stated recommendation.
“The [issue] that created a lot of concern was this memo that was going around,” said Anu Mittal, spokeswoman for GAO.
The memo, which was obtained and reported on by the Los Angeles Times, covered some cost cutting measures issued by the U. S. Forest Service that included reducing the use of outside firefighting resources.
The GAO recommended that the forest service have “clarity so the forest service [personnel] is ordering resources they need,” Mittal said.
The forest service has been asked to create guidelines for when it expects to need services other then its own.
Several residents in the Station Fire-affected area commented on the fire and response, or lack of response, from the USFS during the fire. They shared their stories during local panel discussions that included representatives from the U.S. Congress, GAO and USFS.
The questions included the response time from the beginning of the fire, the equipment including water dropping air support and the USFS knowledge of the area, especially in the Big Tujunga area.
“We looked at the Tujunga homes in terms of what more could have been done,” Mittal said. They found the USFS had three strike teams assigned to Big T and five engines.
“Given the roads and conditions, it wasn’t safe for them to have additional engines. There was no place for them to fall back and it would be a danger to firefighters,” she added. “What we did find was there was a lack of defensible space in Big T and the forest service has already started creating more defensible space.”
Defensible space is the area surrounding homes and buildings that should be clear of vegetation and debris. This makes it easier for firefighters to defend against a fire.
Mittal added that USFS is asked to conform to California state standards of defensible space. California requires 30 to 100 feet of defensible space around structures.
As to whether the USFS even knew if there were houses in Big Tujunga, the GAO found that the service was well aware of the homes.
On Aug. 28 the USFS created a structure protection group to protect the area and a supervisor drove the roads and mapped out the homes. The report found the fire spread much faster and in a manner that USFS did not anticipate.
“They thought it would be a moderate fire,” she said.
The area the USFS thought the fire would take in two days only took 24 hours to cover, she added.
One of the main concerns voiced by residents and officials, like Los Angeles Supervisor Michael Antonovich, was that water dropping air support was called out too late.
During the panel discussions representatives from USFS gave confusing explanations as to when, if and how the planes were requested.
“One of the lessons that we learned from [the Station Fire and investigation] was USFS needs to be very clear on the appropriate role concerning night flights,” Mittal said.
Since the Station Fire, the report found USFS had taken some actions to clarify the procedures concerning night flights over fires.
“They [also] need to have a system for doing the [water] drops,” Mittal added. “We kept asking them for documentation on how much they dropped and they are trying to fix that problem, and to track the drops and locations … They kept saying they were doing drops but we don’t know where.”
Another issue the investigation found was not a new problem but one that the GAO had requested clarification on for years.
“They need to assess what they need for firefighting and have that information on a strategic level,” she added.
The GAO will continue to monitor the recommendation for four years but has no legislative power to require implementation of their suggestions.
Congress does have the power to step in if the recommendations are ignored, however. According to the GAO, steps have already been taken by the USFS to implement some of the recommendations.
“I think this report confirmed what we [already knew],” said Alisa Do, spokeswoman for Congressman David Dreier. Dreier along with congressmen Adam Schiff, Buck McKeon, Judy Chu and Brad Sherman and senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer requested an independent investigation be done of the Station Fire through the GAO.
Do said the Congressman would continue to monitor the recommendations and implementation with USFS.
“An independent investigation into the events surrounding the 2009 Station Fire is vital to fully understanding and implementing the lessons learned from this tragic event,” Dreier said in a statement.
“The GAO report confirms many of the concerns I have heard from the firefighting community, including the importance of giving our emergency responders the tools they need to safely and effectively fight fires. As we prepare for future fire seasons, I believe this analysis will be of tremendous value. I thank the GAO for their work and I remain committed to working with the many local, state and federal agencies involved in protecting our neighborhoods from wild land fires.”
Congressman Schiff, who acted as moderator for several of the panel discussions between the USFS, GAO and residents, wrote a letter to USDA Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell urging the Forest Service to complete an ongoing assessment of the agency’s night-flying operations as soon as possible; identify needed firefighting assets and develop a cohesive strategy to fight fires; and develop a plan for double-crewing of firefighting tankers.
“I have been eagerly anticipating this GAO report, which evaluates whether the Forest Service actions in response to the Station Fire were taken in the most efficacious way possible,” Schiff said. “This review helps us to better understand the events surrounding the initial response to the fire, and sets out important steps that the Forest Service should take to improve outcomes in the future – steps that are long overdue.”
Schiff wrote a letter to USFS Chief Tidwell concerning the report and urged him to implement changes.
Antonovich has been a vocal critic of the handling of the Station Fire that claimed the lives of two L.A. County Firefighters.
“The GAO’s report confirms what we’ve been saying for the last two years – the Forest Service used poor judgment, had an ineffective communications strategy and failed to employ every available asset in the earliest stage of the incident which led to Station Fire growing out of control,” said Antonovich on the release of the GAO’s Station Fire report. “Had the Forest Service used the resources available through mutual aid, this fire may have been contained and prevented from spreading. We would not have lost the lives of two brave Los Angeles County firefighters, nearly 100 structures and over 160,000 acres.”
State Assemblymember Anthony Portantino, a La Cañada resident, had also called for answers shortly after the Station Fire.
“To me the most serious aspects were the number of air tankers that under federal contract fell from 44 in 2002 to 19 in 2009,” Portantino said.
A fire service report released in 1999 included a plan to reduce large fires, he said.
“That fire [report] was ignored until the Station Fire and the [plan] will not be completed until 2013,” he said.
Portantino agreed with others that the USFS did not seem to have a plan in place.
“I would call on [the USFS] to continue to get answers to questions the public still has the right to know and to implement the recommendations of 1999,” he said.
To read the report visit http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-155. Click on the right for the highlights of the report. To read the letter to Chief Tidwell sent by Rep. Adam Schiff, visit www.cvweekly.com and click on Letter to Chief Tidwell.