USFS urged to allow night aerial firefighting

AP News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2009 10:24 PM

The U.S. Forest Service should allow helicopters to fight fires during darkness, a tactic that could have been used in the critical first hours of the summer's gigantic and deadly wildfire in the Angeles National Forest, a Los Angeles County Fire Department report found.

"Nighttime air attack is a standard," said the executive review of the department's actions during the Station Fire, which became the largest in county history as it spread over 250 square miles, killing two firefighters and destroying 89 homes.

The review was sent to the county Board of Supervisors late Tuesday and posted on its Web site.

The county review follows a Forest Service report that concluded the fire raged out of control because of inaccessible terrain and dense brush in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Forest Service report said using aircraft without ground crews to help would have been ineffective.

Area residents, especially those who lost homes, have been sharply critical of the Forest Service.

The Station Fire was ignited by arson Aug. 26 several miles north of the closest homes in the foothill suburb of La Canada Flintridge.

The Forest Service was in charge of the response before the fire's growth led to the formation of a unified command with numerous agencies.

The county review said there was a "critical time period between initial dispatch" on Aug. 26 and about 8 a.m. on Aug. 27, when county firefighting helicopters could have been used but were not.

The review said county pilots are experienced in night firefighting and could have dropped water throughout the night to control spot fires caused by embers falling down the mountain.

"Such action was not taken because the USFS policy prohibits night flying," the review said. "Would night flying have made a difference? No one can say for sure, but night flying is a policy change that is needed."

John Heil, a regional spokesman for the Forest Service, said not flying at night is a practice, not a policy.

"Generally we don't because of safety reasons," he said. Heil said an AP inquiry about the county's review would be relayed to an official in Washington, D.C., where it was after hours.

About 5,000 firefighters were needed at the height of the Station Fire, which cost about $90 million to fight. It was the 10th largest fire in California since 1933.

The county review also recommended that the Angeles National Forest require 200 feet of clearance between natural vegetation and structures instead of the 30 feet now in use.

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On the Net:

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, http://bos.co.la.ca.us/