LA County leaders back night fire flights

AP News
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Posted: Nov 24, 2009 9:38 PM

Los Angeles County leaders responding to the summer's destructive Station Fire voted Tuesday to urge the U.S. Forest Service to allow helicopters to battle wildfires at night.

The Board of Supervisors agreed with a recommendation in a county Fire Department executive review of the blaze, which spread over 250 square miles, destroyed 89 homes and led to the deaths of two firefighters.

The review concluded that experienced county helicopter pilots could have made water drops on the first night of the fire _ although it conceded that it was not known if that would have made a difference.

The Forest Service, however, was in charge of the fire because it was burning in the Angeles National Forest, which sprawls atop the rugged San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles' foothill suburbs. The Forest Service generally does not allow aerial firefighting at night for safety reasons.

The Forest Service's own earlier review of the Station Fire concluded that on that critical night use of aircraft without ground forces would not have been effective and that the fire's location was so dangerous that "using ground-base resources would expose firefighters to unmitigated risk."

After the county came out with its review last week, the Forest Service said it had acted "prudently" and noted that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as well as Los Angeles County had been part of the review and that the county had not raised the issue.

The review panel for the Forest Service report included the same county Fire Department deputy chief who sent the county's executive review to Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman. Freeman, meanwhile, announced in a letter to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that he plans to retire next March after serving as chief for nearly 21 years.