Records: Planes ordered but canceled in wildfire

Records: Planes ordered but canceled in wildfire

22 December 2009

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The U.S. Forest Service summoned several powerful firefighting airplanes in the early stages of the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history, then canceled and reordered them, causing a two-hour delay in their arrival, according to government records.

The records renewed questions about agency decision-making in the critical early hours of the blaze and whether enough was done to stop it.

When the arson fire began on the afternoon of Aug. 26, the Forest Service brought in a total of 11 planes and helicopters to help about 200 firefighters on the ground knock down what was then a relatively small blaze of 20 acres, the records show.

But the fire kept spreading. Just after midnight, dispatchers called for three air tankers, among the most powerful aerial firefighting tools, to arrive at 7 a.m.

The planes were canceled then reordered hours later. But instead of arriving at 7 a.m., as originally planned, the planes reached the site just before 9 a.m., according to Forest Service records obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.

The three air tankers became part of the agency’s aerial assault on Aug. 27, the second day the blaze burned in Angeles National Forest.

Forest Service officials have defended their use of aircraft. A government report issued last month concluded the wildfire raged out of control because it jumped into inaccessible terrain, not because of the way the agency deployed firefighters or aircraft.

Using aircraft to dump water or retardant without ground crews to help out would have been ineffective, the report said.

The so-called Station Fire ultimately killed two firefighters, destroyed 89 homes and blackened 250 square miles on the edge of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has said the Forest Service erred by not calling in more aircraft to drop water and fire retardant in the early hours of the blaze. Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich, said Monday the supervisor wants Congress to investigate how the firefighting was conducted.

Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management Director Tom Harbour said Monday the large air tankers would have been unable to get near the fire’s critical point near the bottom of a steep, narrow drainage area.

The cancellation of the planes, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, was not significant because they could not have been used at that location, he said.

In an interview last month, Harbour dismissed criticism about the use of aircraft.

“It’s a red herring to keep talking about helicopters and air tankers,” Harbour said. “Firefighters on the ground put out fire. … And there were places on that Station Fire … where we simply couldn’t get boots on the ground.”

Last month, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said in a report that the Forest Service should allow helicopters to attack fires at night, a practice the federal agency has long avoided because of risk to pilots.

The county review said there was a critical time period on the day the fire began and the following morning when county firefighting helicopters could have been used but were not.

It concluded, however, that no one could say if night flights would have made any difference with the Los Angeles fire.

Planes and helicopters are considered a vital tool by firefighters to slow the spread of a blaze, but officials said instances of aircraft extinguishing fire are rare.

“They help the guys on the ground,” said Jim Ziobro, fire aviation coordinator for the Oregon Department of Forestry, who wasn’t involved in the Los Angeles County fire.

Airplanes and helicopters are “sexy,” he said.

“People can see aircraft. That’s what’s on the news,” Ziobro said. “That’s not what puts the fire out.”

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