According to the L.A. Times Station Fire commanders failed to call in available air resources on day two of the fire.
Had dispatchers followed through and ordered air tankers, sitting idle in nearby bases, the fire could have been hooked in the early stages, possibly held to a few thousand acres. The fire burned more than 140,000 acres and ended as the fifth largest wildfire in California history.
Disturbingly Cal Fire’s air attack plane, a quarterback in the sky flew overhead on day two and waited for air tankers that never arrived. According to the Times article the morning of day two Cal Fire Air Attack only had one helicopter to direct on the the rapidly growing blaze below.
Much “he said, she said” is taking place in the aftermath as to who ordered or did not order air resources, hence the cover-up allegations.
The crux of the issue is money. Air tankers are expensive. Air tankers also kill fire. In a Forest Service culture where fire is not always a bad thing, read overtime, forest management combined with the reality of pinched budgets it is easy to see how a decision could be made to keep air tankers away.
There are two wildland firefighting cultures at work in California. One is Cal Fire, the state wildland fire force, and the other if the U.S Forest Service. Cal Fire attacks fires with the intent of putting them out as quickly as possible, even beyond initial attack. The Forest Service will attack a fire but has no problem backing off once the initial attack phase ends.
The best comparison between the two cultures took place in 2008. One only has to compare the Basin Complex, a Forest Service fire that devastated Big Sur and the Telegraph Fire, a Cal Fire show.
The differences lie within.
Forest Service and Cal Fire firefighters are equally competent. Both forces are full of dedicated professionals. It’s the difference in fire culture that separates the two entities and it’s been that way for decades.
What the L.A. Times found out about the Station Fire is not at all surprising.