Congressional panel to examine big Calif. wildfire

AP News
Posted: Oct 12, 2010 3:40 AM
Congressional panel to examine big Calif. wildfire

A congressional panel on Tuesday will look into the U.S. Forest Service's initial response to last year's gigantic Southern California wildfire that killed two firefighters and destroyed 89 homes.

Lawmakers will try to determine whether the so-called Station Fire could have been contained before it grew into a 250-square-mile inferno.

The fire has raised questions about the Forest Service's decades-old policy against nighttime helicopter water drops and whether budget concerns constrained use of resources.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who represents communities in the fire area, said last month that he organized the panel of Congress members to hear from representatives of the Forest Service and other agencies, outside experts and critics to shed light on how firefighting procedures were used and how they may be revised.

Invited speakers included the supervisor of the Angeles National Forest, the director of the Forest Service's fire and aviation management, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials, retired Forest Service employees _ including a former Angeles forest fire chief _ and representatives of burned-out homeowners and a firefighters union.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that a review conducted for the Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, found that arrival of critical resources to the Station Fire was delayed by a decision to initially only use federal personnel.

The review cited a Forest Service letter sent to forest supervisors in early August 2009 urging them to hold down costs and, when appropriate, use Forest Service resources rather than ordering them from contractors or state and local agencies. Forest Service officials have insisted cost concerns did not impede the response.

The Station Fire was ignited by arson at 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2009, near a ranger station along a highway in the 1,000-square-mile forest, which sprawls across the San Gabriel Mountains north and east of Los Angeles.

The blaze remained small overnight as it burned on a rugged slope above suburbs that crowd the foothills of the mountain range. Fire commanders called for an aerial assault to begin at 7 a.m. the next day but aircraft did not actually arrive until about two hours later and by then the fire had begun to rage out of control.

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The wildfire burned furiously for a month, killing two county firefighters when it overran an inmate firefighting camp.

At more than 160,000 acres, it became the largest wildfire ever in Los Angeles County and the 10th largest in California history.

Losses were considerably lower than the state's 20 worst wildfires _ topped by a 1,600-acre Alameda County blaze that destroyed 2,900 structures and caused 25 deaths in 1991 _ but the Station Fire threatened thousands of homes for days and forced extensive evacuations.

The denuded watershed also put communities at risk of devastating debris flows from storm runoff, forcing repeated evacuations last winter. In February, more than 40 foothill homes were damaged by a surge of water laden with mud, boulders and debris. Experts say the risk will remain for years.