Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Station Fire; Congressional Investigation of U.S. Forest Service Response Requested

Planes for California Wildfire Canceled; Congressional Investigation Requested

LOS ANGELES - 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 (8 hectares), 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 it 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 (647 sq. kilometres) 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.

Source: AP - Link

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