U.S. Department of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack has invited Congress to open an investigation into discrepancies surrounding the initial response to the Station Fire by the U.S. Forest Service.
Top state politicians including both of California’s U.S. Senators and a handful of L.A. County Congressmen have endorsed Vilsack’s request.
On the morning of August 27 2009, day two of the Station Fire requests were made through dispatch for firefighting aircraft. On that morning a Cal Fire air attack aircraft was over the fire waiting for arriving air tankers. The air tankers were delayed. Had the tankers been dispatched as requested the Station Fire might have been stopped at a few hundred acres. Instead, the fire ended up burning through 160,000 acres, killing two L.A. County firefighters and destroying nearly 100 homes.
The investigation will likely question why fire ground commander requests for aircraft were ignored, if they were ignored why, and if there was a cover up after the fact. Forest Service officials have concluded use of air tankers on the morning of August 27 would not have made a difference. Firefighters on the ground dispute that finding.
Here is what I hope comes out of the investigation. For too long the Forest Service has played a game of chicken with fire. For far too long the culture of “pull back and assess” has existed within the USFS culture. If every fire is doused quickly the money tree cannot be shaken. Hot Shot and Blue Card crews sit idle, contractors don’t make money, engine crews don’t bring down the big overtime and ICS teams stay home. At the peak of the Station Fire more than 6,000 firefighters and support personnel were on scene and nearly $100,000,000 was spent putting the fire out.
The absence of big fires hits the USFS fire suppression budget hardest. Three and five year averages come down which means personnel and offices down the line are affected. New equipment purchases are put on hold, promotions denied, contracts suspended.
The Forest Service does not intend for anyone to get hurt but they need campaign fires. The entire Forest Service ecology counts on the big fire.
Perhaps it’s coincidental but I am seeing air tankers dispatched to Forest Service fires earlier than usual this year. Everything is getting hooked quickly as it should be.
There is one tape I hope the investigators subpoena. That would be the cockpit tape of the Cal Fire air attack pilot flying overhead in the early morning hours of August 27 with only a couple of helicopters working below assisting ground crews. Air Attack is the eye in the sky and coordinates all air activity over wildland fires in California.
Guessing half that tape would be bleep filled due to frustration at watching the forest below burn while his main tools were grounded.