Urgency of Station Fire Underestimated: Report

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 2:54 PM PDT
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The View from Space: The Station Fire's Deadly Path

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GLENDALE, CA - SEPTEMBER 01: A firefighting helicopter flies by a smoke shrouded sun as it prepares to drop water on hot spots of the Station Fire September 1, 2009 in Glendale.

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Fire officials underestimated the urgency posed by the deadly Station Fire, scaling back their attack on the blaze the night before it began to rage out of control, it was reported Sunday.

Angeles Forest Fire Chief David Conklin told the Los Angeles Times that his staff was confident that Station Fire had been "fairly well contained" on the first day, Aug. 26. They decided that evening to order just three water-dropping helicopters to hit the blaze shortly after dawn on its second day -- down from five on Day One -- and had trouble safely confronting it.

The Forest Service called in several more helicopters as well as heavy air tankers, but the fire already was multiplying in size, Conklin told the Times.

The Forest Service realized overnight that three helicopters would not be enough, and brought in two more later in the morning. More engine companies and ground crews were also summoned, but it would prove to be too late.

"We felt we had sufficient resources," Conklin told the Times. "There's always that lesson. We'll always have that in our minds."

A veteran county fire official who took park in the first day's battle told The Times he was disheartened that his department was not brought back at similar strength the next morning.

"There was a real window of opportunity that wasn't recognized or acted on," the official told The Times, which granted him anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. "Every brush fire starts out small. Either you extinguish the damn thing or it goes on a few days and you have a major disaster."

Some residents of the fire zone said they were baffled by the diminished air assault after sunup the second day.

"There were some decisions made that I would love to know," Adi Ell-Ad, who lost his Big Tujunga Canyon home to the fire, told the newspaper. "We really haven't gotten answers. We want to know what happened."

The suspected arson fire broke out at 3:20 p.m. on a Wednesday along Angeles Crest Highway, and took its name from the nearby Angeles Crest Ranger Station. According to a Forest Service summary of the first day, the fire had been kept to 15 acres and was expected to be controlled by 1 p.m. the next day.

The Times reported that the county department bolstered the Forest Service's first-day response in the belief that the fire imperiled houses in the county's responsibility area. The county sent five helicopters, five engines and four hand crews.

Once it became clear that the fire was within the Forest Service's jurisdiction, officials told the Times, the county was required to await requests from the federal agency for help on subsequent days. But those requests were not made.

Officials from the Forest Service and Los Angeles County Fire Department told the Times they probably will change their procedures so that the two agencies immediately stage a joint assault on any fire in the lower Angeles National Forest.

Los Angeles County Chief Deputy John Tripp told The Times in the future, setting up a joint command with the Forest Service as soon as a fire breaks out -- including possibly at high elevations -- should make it easier for the agencies to muster each other's helicopters, engines and ground crews.

Currently, joint commands are established only if a blaze presents an imminent threat to foothills communities.

"We have to be that much more robust in our response," Tripp told The Times. "That's what, on a personal note, I have learned from this."

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