USA –– Every time we look up at the San Bernardino Mountains and see a July thunderhead looming high above them, we can’t help remembering that different kind of cloud that loomed over the San Gabriels for weeks in September and October of 2009 – the smoke from the devastating Station Fire.
The fire was well and bravely fought by so many firefighters from so many local, L.A. County and federal agencies. Two firefighters lost their lives in the battle. The mysterious, still-at-large arsonist who started the blaze near a ranger station just above La Canada Flintridge on the Angeles Crest Highway is a murderer.
And yet all expert observers of the way the Station Fire was battled know that we lost a crucial opportunity when the sun went down on the first day it was burning. At that point, it appeared the fire could be contained fairly quickly.
If it had been fought from above that first night, using aerial bombardment with chemicals and water, there is every chance that it could have been put down.
But the U.S. Forest Service, unlike other firefighting agencies, does not use its aircraft to fight fires at night, by policy. Certainly, the potential safety issues are obvious even to the amateur. The local mountains are among the steepest in the world, and flying into canyons in the dark is a risky business. Still, it is done – when the Forest Service wants to, it contracts out. It had no contractors available that evening. By dawn, the fire had spread dramatically, and it would take weeks to put it out.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, in whose congressional district much of the fire raged, demanded a report from the Forest Service after the Station Fire about what it would take to create an effective night firefighting aerial service. The Forest Service agreed to research and write the report.
That was coming up on three years ago now. The report has still not been released. Tom Harbour, the director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, told KNX last week that the agency has no release date for the report and that it is still being worked on.
But Schiff has a suspicion. “It’s nothing more than speculation,” he said. “But I think the report is sitting there, completed. And it will say they know they should have night-flying capability. But once they say it, they would have to pay for it.”
And the Forest Service doesn’t have the budget to do so.
If Schiff is right, we half-understand the reluctance to release the findings. But it’s simply the wrong reason not to come clean. The Forest Service needs to get the investigation and recommendations out. If the issue is money, we need to help find ways to make night-flying feasible, including paying for it.
The West is a tinderbox. We need to hear from the Forest Service about better ways to fight fires 24/7.