A wildfire that grew into an inferno that killed two firefighters and burned 89 homes might have been extinguished sooner if officials had better coordinated an aerial assault on the blaze, a congressional panel was told Tuesday.
Dozens of foothill residents who lost homes during the Station Fire north of Los Angeles packed a hearing room to listen to U.S. Forest Service officials and other fire leaders defend their tackling of the arson blaze.
The Station Fire broke out Aug. 26, 2009, and eventually burned more than 250 square miles to become the largest wildfire ever in Los Angeles County and the 10th largest in California history.
A long-running question has been whether enough was done to bring aircraft into the fight early in the process. The panel heard that a request for air crews was made during the night but wasn't formalized until after daybreak.
"They didn't make the formal request for the aircraft and no one today was able to tell us why," Rep. Adam Schiff said after Tuesday's hearing.
Planes finally arrived around 9 a.m. the next day, after the blaze had ballooned in size.
Many of the issues raised at the hearing have been detailed in previous reports about the fire in and around Angeles National Forest.
"Everybody was behind the curve," William Derr, retired special agent in charge of investigative and law enforcement program for the Forest Service, told the panel. "There was numerous missed opportunities to get this fire under control in the early stages."
Derr testified that the crew of an air tanker leaving the scene of another fire had offered to make a retardant drop on the Station Fire on the morning it began to explode, but the tanker was told to go elsewhere.
Will Spyrison, the Forest Service division chief at the fire, told the panel he wasn't aware of the claim that an aircraft had been offered.
Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron said treacherous terrain and overhead power lines made it hard for aircraft to work.
Schiff, a Democrat who represents communities in the fire area, organized the panel of Congress members to hear from representatives of the Forest Service and other agencies, outside experts and residents to shed light on firefighting procedure and how it might be revamped.
Schiff also wants fire officials to revisit the policy of not flying water-dropping aircraft at night. Aviation technology has improved to the point it can be done safely, he said.
A review by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which runs the Forest Service, found that a memo was circulated weeks before the fire urging supervisors to deploy federal firefighting teams instead of more costly local agencies and contractors.
"In a zeal to save money, this fire was allowed to get out of control," Schiff said, describing those findings.
Forest Service officials have insisted cost concerns did not impede the response. Spyrison added that his decision-making was not influenced by any memo.
"In the initial attack, I ordered what I needed to do the job," said Spyrison, who has retired.
The cost-cutting theory resonated with many residents at the hearing who lost homes. Duncan Baird, whose home was destroyed in Big Tujunga Canyon, said Forest Service personnel were notably absent from his community and made no effort to pretreat tinder dry chaparral with flame retardant.
"Our whole canyon became indefensible because of the fact that nothing had been done in advance," Baird said.
Other former Big Tujunga Canyon residents who were living on leased Forest Service land suggested the agency failed to protect their properties as a way of clearing them out. The canyon was once home to sycamore, pine and oak-lined riverbeds with abundant wildlife.
"There is a general feeling that they let our houses burn," former resident Ariyana Gibbon said.
Former Big Tujunga resident Beth Halaas said it appeared Forest Service firefighters didn't understand the situation. She recalled hearing fire commanders talk about three homes being destroyed when nearly two dozen had burned.
"Our whole neighborhood was gone and they had no idea," she said.
The Station Fire burned furiously for weeks, killing two county firefighters who drove off a mountain road as the blaze overran an inmate firefighting camp.
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.