Report: Terrain, brush to blame in huge wildfire

AP News
|
Posted: Nov 13, 2009 8:28 PM

The largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history raged out of control because it jumped into inaccessible terrain, not because the U.S. Forest Service scaled back firefighters and aircraft attacking the flames, a federal review found Friday.

The U.S. Forest Service study of decision-making during the Station Fire's first three days concluded that commanders used "best professional practices" while trying to knock down the fire that began Aug. 26 in Angeles National Forest.

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell ordered the review in September after residents and other critics said firefighters bungled the initial response. Government documents show the number of firefighters had been reduced on the first night of the fire, opening questions about whether commanders misread the threat of a blaze that ultimately killed two firefighters, destroyed 89 homes and blackened 250 square miles on the edge of Los Angeles.

But a five-member review group said the challenge corralling the fire was its location _ steep, rugged slopes thick with highly flammable brush _ not decisions made by firefighters. As the blaze jumped into inaccessible areas, using aircraft to dump water or retardant without ground crews to help out would have been ineffective, the report found.

"Additional resources during the evening of Aug. 26 and morning of Aug. 27 would not have improved the effectiveness of operations during that operational period and would have resulted in needless exposure of firefighters to the hazards of wildland fire," the report said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich challenged the findings, insisting the Forest Service erred by not calling in more aircraft to drop water and fire retardant in the early hours of the fire.

Had more aircraft been used, "the fire would not have spread," Antonovich said in a statement Friday.

The review, however, concluded otherwise. Along with the steep location, firefighters were also hindered by limited visibility, but the number of personnel, engines or aircraft at the scene were not a factor, it found.

At issue has been whether firefighters could have done more to extinguish the blaze in its initial days, before it burned through an area the size of El Paso, Texas.

The report said that on the morning of Aug. 27, the second day, the fire began burning in two directions and firefighters eventually pulled back because of the increasing danger.

"In light of the extremely challenging topography encountered during initial attack, the highly volatile fire and dense, dry brush ... commanders were reasonable and prudent in their response," it said.

Earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported the Forest Service underestimated the fire's strength and scaled back firefighting efforts the night before flames started raging out of control.

Documents show firefighters believed the blaze was largely under control on the first day. However, by the second day it was spreading out of control.

The report said decisions made by commanders were "consistent with broadly accepted ... practices," including how and where they used of ground crews and aircraft.