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Did Feds Cause the Station-fire Disaster 

Ugly allegations that fire officials reduced air support, tankers and backup crews

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009
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It’s been six weeks since the Station Fire roared out of control on a sweltering August weekend, but troubling stories grip the communities that edge the Angeles National Forest, where talk is of a mysterious but widely acknowledged pullback by fire crews, the odd lack of crucial water tankers and helicopters, and information screwups that left fire brass seemingly unaware that Big Tujunga Canyon had burned to the ground.

Community meetings, instead of dying out, are being held every few days, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wants a congressional investigation, and jarring news reports by Paul Pringle at the Los Angeles Times increasingly suggest that major errors by fire officials helped to create the biggest fire in Los Angeles County history.

“I was at another meeting just last night, of the Vogel Flats survivors, where the ranger station and 30 of the 90 cabins burned,” says Mary Benson, a prominent activist in the foothills. “We haven’t gotten to the bottom of why it all burned, but it’s like friendly fire in a war, where everyone is covering their butts and not explaining their real roles in what occurred.”

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Key questions have emerged, questions fire officials from Los Angeles city and county, CalFire, and the U.S. Forest Service all seem unprepared to answer about the arson-sparked blaze, which burned 240,000 acres and killed two firefighters:

. Are warring neighbors to blame for preventing a government-financed brush-clearing effort that months ago was supposed to remove acres of tinder-dry fuel from some areas that burned?

. Did U.S. Forest Service bureaucrats from the Obama administration, during the crucial early hours, cut the use of reinforcement firefighters from nearby cities and CalFire in order to save money?

. Why did fire officials at a media center at Hansen Dam continue to report to journalists that La Crescenta was the battleground, several hours after the fire had leapt into an entirely different watershed and burned poorly defended Big Tujunga Canyon to the ground?

. Was a ground crew–versus–air crew pissing match partly to blame for the failure of officials to put down the fire early with sufficient tanker and helicopter drops?

Residents from Altadena, to the east, to the highly activist community of Sunland, to the west, are sharing one particularly ugly, and unproven, rumor that a radio transmission was overheard in which a fire official stated, “Just pull back and let it burn.”

But there are no hard answers yet, and Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, who represents the areas that burned, says that even forming the right questions is difficult. “There’s paranoia, but a lot of legitimate beefs,” Bell says. “Folks in Quartz Hill and Juniper Hills did not get the reverse-911 call from the sheriff to evacuate. Why not? Were the fire break crews sufficient? We don’t think so. Where was the aircraft? And communications? We had no idea where the fire was going, jumping from San Gabriel Valley to Big Tujunga to Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita Valley.”

In fact, there’s been so much bad press that normally readily available fire officials are hard to reach. At meetings intended to debrief the public, any mistaken statement by a county or federal fire official is now seen as possible subterfuge instead of an honest error.

“Some of the key people involved are refusing to talk because they’d lose their jobs” for making critical comments, particularly about the extreme shortage of Super Scooper water tankers, says Tony Morris, an advocate for dramatically increasing the air fleet in California to match firefighting capabilities in Italy and France.

Says Morris: “During the worst of the Station fire, an [aircraft firm] I know was called to come in to drop on the fire. Then the work shift changed and the new fire official in charge that hour said, “No, I want you at 4 p.m. instead. ...’ But by 4 p.m., it was too smoky — and too late.”

Antonovich’s office is asking the local California congressional delegation to look into the actions taken and roles played by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Forest Service in the initial stages, when experts say the Station fire could have been easily extinguished by tankers and helicopters dropping water and retardant. Antonovich also wants legislation that would designate the Los Angeles County Fire Department, not the Forest Service, the lead agency in local forest fires that threaten dwellings and heavily settled hillside towns.

For now, says activist Benson, “I could make a lot of nasty and smart-ass remarks about what happened here, but it would only be conjecture on my part. We simply cannot explain very simple questions, like, Why wasn’t there air support? It would behoove the Forest Service to come clean if they did in fact decide not to ask for backup.”

Reach the writer at jstewart@laweekly.com

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