USA — Under pressure for its handling of the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history, federal foresters announced an agreement Thursday with local firefighters that will make it easier to get water-dumping helicopters into the air at night over fire-prone Angeles National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service has been sharply criticized by residents who lost homes in the 2009 Station Fire that burned 250 square miles of the sprawling forest and killed two firefighters.
Largely at issue has been the agency’s use of firefighting aircraft in the early hours of the blaze, and whether water-dropping helicopters could have slowed, or extinguished, the fire on its first night, before it raged out of control.
The Forest Service has long discouraged night flying because of the risk of operating aircraft in darkness in rugged national forests. However, the tentative agreement with the Los Angeles County Fire Department would greatly broaden the instances in which forest officials could summon county helicopters for night firefighting.
The deal, expected to be finalized shortly, eliminates a requirement that homes or other structures must be in immediate danger for foresters to request help from the county’s night-flying helicopters. Under the pact, Angeles officials could ask for county helicopters for night firefighting any time they are considered needed, regardless of location in the 1,000-square-mile forest.
“It opens it up” for any fire that could become a threat, said county fire department Chief Deputy John Tripp. “We are going to try to do everything in our ability to fill those requests.”
The announcement at a meeting organized by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., appeared to do little to appease furious residents who lost homes in the fire. They have long argued too little was done to safeguard homes during the fire, and not enough has been done since to assure it won’t happen again in a state where wildfires can break out at any time.
Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service, said the agency is nearing a decision on whether to allow its pilots to fly at night. The Forest Service experimented with night flying against wildfires in the 1970s and early 1980s, but abandoned it after a helicopter collision.
He disputed claims that firefighting tactics were guided by financial considerations.
“We are not constrained by cost. We want to get the fire out,” Harbour said.
A federal review in 2009 found the fire raged out of control because it jumped into steep, inaccessible terrain, not because the U.S. Forest Service scaled back firefighters and aircraft attacking the flames.
Congressional investigators are conducting a broad review on the fire that is expected to be completed later this year.
Water- and retardant-dumping aircraft rarely extinguish wildfires. That job falls to ground crews. Embers, brush and grasses on the forest floor can continue to burn even after a water or retardant drop.
Tripp emphasized that night-flying helicopters are one tool in the fight, not a guarantee a fire will be restrained or extinguished. He said night flights were used in a November 2008 wildfire on the edge of Los Angeles, but that didn’t prevent the destruction of hundreds of mobile homes.
Would water drops on the first night have put out the Station Fire?
“I don’t think anybody can say that,” Tripp said. “That’s all about speculation.”